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From the Sidelines, Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca Is Rooting for James Hellmold

James Hellmold: Baca's guy
James Hellmold: Baca's guy

Former Sheriff Lee Baca has been out of the spotlight since January, when he resigned under a cloud of scandal. But Baca, who turned 72 this week, has been keeping a close eye on the wide-open race to succeed him.

And while he has not said so publicly, Baca is quietly rooting for Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold, according to a law enforcement source close to Baca. Hellmold has promised to continue many of the programs and policies that Baca considers to be his legacy, such as education-based incarceration.

And while Hellmold has faulted Baca for trusting the wrong people, he has avoided taking shots at him - unlike the rest of the candidates.

Baca's private support for Hellmold marks a contrast from what he said publicly in January. At the press conference at which he announced his resignation, Baca said that either Hellmold or Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers would be qualified to succeed him.

Since then, however, Baca has soured on Rogers. Unlike Hellmold, Rogers has been outspoken in his criticisms of Baca.

Todd Rogers
Todd Rogers

Though he is generally cast as an "insider" in the race, Rogers has been vocal in criticizing a culture of cronyism in the department. Among other things, Rogers has accused Baca of giving out concealed weapons permits to his wealthy friends.

At a recent candidates' forum, Rogers said that when Baca promoted him to assistant sheriff in 2013, "there was a giant bowl of Kool-Aid in the office and people were drinking from that. I took that Kool-Aid and dumped it out."

Baca now considers Rogers to be a "back-stabber," according to the source. In fact, Rogers is no longer even Baca's second choice to be sheriff. If Hellmold does not win, Baca prefers James McDonnell, the Long Beach police chief.

This is not news to Rogers. In an interview, Rogers says it was "common knowledge" among those involved in the race that Baca is supporting Hellmold behind the scenes. Rogers says his own supporters have called him to say that Baca encouraged them to back Hellmold.

Rogers also says he remains "flabbergasted" that Baca ever publicly supported him, in light of how critical Rogers had been of Baca's management of the department.

In a separate interview, Hellmold says that he still talks to Baca regularly, but that Baca has done nothing - even behind the scenes - to back his campaign.

Told of Rogers' statements, Hellmold says "It's all in his head."

Hellmold has raised $439,000, more than double what Rogers has raised.

"Everyone was shocked that within a month we raised $100,000," Hellmold says. "Not one penny came from any of Baca's previous supporters."

McDonnell raised the most of any candidate in the most recent filing period, and has now raised $762,000 overall. He also has support from most of the political establishment and the leaders of the L.A. law enforcement community.

The primary election is next Tuesday, with the top two finishers advancing to the general election in November. Most observers expect McDonnell to make the runoff, with the others vying for the second slot. Also among the top contenders are Paul Tanaka, the former undersheriff, and Bob Olmsted, a retired commander.

Baca's support is a mixed blessing. For many years, Baca was an extremely popular figure - well-liked by both progressive activists and business and community groups. But while many voters still think fondly of him, his image was badly tarnished by the scandals that ultimately drove him from office.

Those scandals - the most serious of which involved brutality in the L.A. County jails - showed Baca to be often out of touch. An independent commission blasted Baca's management skills and blamed him for turning over too much authority to Tanaka, whose own leadership style also came in for withering criticism.

Hellmold, who was once Baca's driver, acknowledges that much of the criticism of Baca is valid. But he also argues that too many candidates have piled on.

"Everyone wants to kick him while he's down," Hellmold says. "People don't want to acknowledge that Baca did anything well."

Hellmold praises Baca for bringing a spirit of inclusiveness to the department, and vows to pursue many of his progressive initiatives. He added, however, that he would run such programs in a more "formalized" and "structured" way.

The other candidates are all much more critical. McDonnell routinely talks about a "culture of corruption" within the department. As an outsider, he argues he is best positioned to clean it up. 

Rogers, meanwhile, argues that his years within the department are not a liability because he was not part of the "in crowd." The same, he says, cannot be said for Hellmold.

"He's a continuation of Baca," Rogers says.


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