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L.A. County Sheriff's Race: A Voter's Guide

L.A. County Sheriff's Race: A Voter's Guide
Illustration by Darrick Rainey

Never before has L.A. seen such a wide open race for sheriff. But the campaign has been a bit of a muddle. Much of the energy in recent weeks has gone into denunciations of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who is running for sheriff even though he is the subject of an FBI investigation into obstruction of justice.

While Tanaka has been fairly well defined, the other candidates are a little harder to differentiate. There's the handsome one, the guy with the mustache, the Irish guy, and the one who looks like Sam Elliott. Who are these guys? What's the difference between them?

Here's a cheat sheet.

L.A. County Sheriff's Race: A Voter's Guide

James Hellmold
He hates it that everyone points out that he was former Sheriff Lee Baca's driver. But given his rapid rise through the ranks on Baca's watch - he leaped from commander to assistant sheriff in 2012 - it's hard to ignore. Hellmold is Baca's favorite to succeed him.

Hellmold stresses that he's "not a politician," but he showed some political savvy in entering the race. The day before Baca resigned, Hellmold changed his party registration from independent to Democrat, and since then has been touting himself as the leading Democratic candidate.

Hellmold was a member of the Commander Management Task Force, which Baca created to address the inmate abuse issue. He did a solid job and deserves credit for lowering the levels of violence within the jails.
Like Baca, Hellmold is a nice guy who hates to criticize anyone. But that got Baca in trouble. The key question is whether he can embody Baca's good qualities without falling into some of his bad habits.

Selling point: Gets along with people.
Drawback: Too close to Baca.

Jim McDonnell
He has a colorful Boston accent and a golden resume. He's been a contender for LAPD chief twice - and was twice passed over. He worked under Bill Bratton, helping him turn LAPD into a model of progressive policing, and is now the chief of the Long Beach Police Department.

McDonnell also served on the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, which did a professional job of exposing that issue. He is clearly comfortable thinking at a high level about law enforcement policy.

Like Hellmold, he is not a politician, and it shows. Though he has all the endorsements you could ask for - newspapers, elected officials, law enforcement - he didn't distinguish himself in debates. Often, he would echo his rivals' remarks rather than assert himself as the frontrunner in the race.

That's the knock on him - that he's too easy-going. There is also the persistent matter of police shootings in Long Beach. That was an issue before he arrived, and it continues to be.
McDonnell argues that he will bring a much-needed outside perspective to the department. That's probably a good thing, given the mess that insiders have made, but he would have to spend some time getting up to speed on operational details.

Selling point: Smart and well credentialed.
Drawback: Too nice.

L.A. County Sheriff's Race: A Voter's Guide
Photo by Ted Soqui

Bob Olmsted
He's an old-school cop who blew the whistle on jail violence and cronyism under Baca and Tanaka. For that, county voters owe him a debt of gratitude. Inmates are undoubtedly safer inside the jails because Olmsted was willing to raise hell.
Voters owe him another debt for being willing to launch his campaign when it seemed crazy to challenge Baca. McDonnell and Rogers sized up the odds and sensibly declined. Olmsted deserves a share of the credit for forcing Baca to withdraw from the race.

But being a whistleblower is not necessarily a qualification for sheriff. While Olmsted has consulted widely and put out a detailed plan for reforming the department, it's not clear that voters owe him the top job.
Olmsted is justifiably angry about what's happened within the department, but he can come off hot-headed next to his more even-tempered rivals. If elected, he might have a hard time winning over deputies who see him as a turncoat.

Selling point: Ethical and unrelenting.
Drawback: Angry.

Todd Rogers
In the last year of his tenure, Baca figured out he was in deep trouble and needed help stabilizing the department. So he promoted two commanders to assistant sheriff. One was Hellmold; the other was Rogers.

There the similarities between them end. Hellmold was close to Baca, and loyal. Rogers, on the other hand, was a potential threat. Rogers has a political background, having long held a city council seat in Lakewood, and he had been contemplating a run for sheriff. By promoting him, Baca kept Rogers inside the tent.
When he resigned, Baca gave his blessing to both Rogers and Hellmold. But in the campaign, Rogers has been vocal in criticizing Baca's cronyism, and Baca has soured on him. Rogers has struggled to win endorsements and raise money, perhaps because Baca has frozen him out.

If McDonnell were not in the race, Rogers would probably be the best qualified candidate. As the captain in Carson, he had a reputation for fair dealings. A woman he once arrested for getting rowdy at a Carson council meeting has spent $5,000 supporting his campaign. 
That said, gun control advocates might think twice about his embrace of the Second Amendment.

Selling point: Independent and fair-minded.
Drawback: Not as experienced as McDonnell.

L.A. County Sheriff's Race: A Voter's Guide
Photo by Ted Soqui

Paul Tanaka
No one accuses him of being too nice. As undersheriff, he was often described as a screamer, a petty tyrant, and a "little Napoleon." He rewarded loyalty, and some of the deputies remain fond of him, but many more grew tired of his reign.
Up until he was forced to resign, Tanaka was at the center of just about every scandal to afflict the department in the last five years. He's also the subject of an FBI investigation. If that were not enough, he has an ankle tattoo from his days as a member of a white-supremacist deputy gang, and the county had to pay out $1 million many years ago to the family of a motorist he shot and killed. 

"There are two groups of people," says Richard Close, the president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, "those who read the newspapers and those who don't. Those who read newspapers will have a serious concern about him being sheriff."

Selling point: Wants to give everybody a concealed weapon.
Drawback: Too many to list.


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