By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“He would have tried to change the LAPD and it would have eaten him alive,” guesses Yagman. “It won’t eat Billy Bratton because he’s creating an appearance of reform around the margins. He’s all sizzle and no steak.”
Sheriff’s Headquarters in Monterey Park is about six and a half miles from Baca’s San Marino house and even closer to his childhood home in East Los Angeles. The drive in either direction takes minutes, yet it’s taken Baca 33 years to make it from Downey Road and Olympic Boulevard to San Marino, although when he dies, he will return to East L.A. — Baca’s plot in Calvary Cemetery is located only a few blocks from the Hubbard Street clinic where he was born.
The Mexican-American neighborhood of Baca’s youth was a hardscrabble place where immigrants made a point to speak English if they could; today Baca’s lack of Spanish proficiency causes him to demur requests to conduct interviews in Spanish for Hispanic media. Raised by his grandparents, the young Baca, through a bit of hustle, attended distant Highland Park’s Franklin High School — preceded by future LAPD Chief Daryl Gates and followed by L.A.’s current city attorney, Rocky Delgadillo. His passions in those days were school government and country & western music; Franklin’s class president often drove his 1950 Chevy, lowered on small front tires, to Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree in El Monte, then one of the state’s top country-music venues.
“Drugs were not in my high school,” Baca says. “I dressed Ivy League — you never wore tennis shoes to high schools, and girls wore skirts and blouses. Boys did not wear Levis to class.”
If the geography of Baca’s life fits onto a small map, his interests do not. His reading ranges from the Koran to academic management texts, and when he looks at problems he sees a Mercator projection of the Big Picture, a holistic diagram of interlocking causes and effects. It is not a stretch to say that Baca’s problem-solving confidence comes from the optimism of the early 1960s, when Americans saw their troubled cities as something manageable, fixable, in the way America once believed all problems were solvable with the right models and Venn diagrams.
In the beginning much was made of Baca being a Latino sheriff, but more than anything he represents the triumph of a California idea — a slightly eccentric, somewhat pragmatic belief in visions, experiments and even the occasional grand failure. Baca’s self-proclaimed “practical idealism” is nothing if not the blood descendant of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and of a time when California built schools, libraries and hospitals, and where, from academia to the counterculture, from its barrios to the shake-roofed suburbs, the state had vibrated with enthusiasm.
“My generation felt hope,” the sheriff remembers. “If a person did his work and set a goal he could reach it.”
Baca becomes more abstract – wonkish — when I ask him to recall the moments that have defined his 38-year law-enforcement career. He vaguely mentions that “there have been times when I brought forth some good ideas that were very important but they were not respected.”
The sheriff often speaks a managerial language that can make him seem aloof or even evasive. Even when I ask him to name specific incidents that have shaped his passion for reforming the department, he only describes some resistance he encountered 20 years ago from the technical services division over the importance of crime analysis.
Baca, in fact, has always been an outsider’s outsider in a department whose politics follow the county’s cult of incumbency. The L.A. sheriff’s right to appoint has always been the power to anoint: At the time of his death in 1998, Sherman Block had been only L.A.’s third sheriff since 1932, thanks to a tradition whereby departing sheriffs resign and hand over their office to handpicked successors who are quickly approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Baca was elected sheriff in November 1998, following a bruising campaign against the four-term Sherman Block, who’d once been Baca’s friend and mentor. The race was a close one and decisively tipped toward Baca’s favor only when Block, 74, died of a cerebral hemorrhage days before the runoff.
Even after Block died, some politicians (as well as former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates) supported his posthumous victory because it would allow the supervisors to pick a new sheriff who would not be Lee Baca. In fact, a fix had purportedly been in place while Block was alive: The ailing sheriff had intended all along, the stories went, to follow the time-honored tradition of resigning shortly after winning the election and then recommending his successor — in this case, the connected former LAPD Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker — to an agreeable Board of Supervisors.
Joseph McNamara is San Jose’s retired reform-minded police chief who, over the years, became familiar with the corrosive effects of L.A.’s get-along/go-along cop ethos, and finds Baca a needed breath of fresh air.
“I knew Pete Pitchess and Sherman Block,” McNamara says. “They were negative guys who kind of coasted — political men who were not leaders. Lee Baca is different from both of them, he is not cynical and doesn’t have their negative karma.”
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