The race for L.A. County Sheriff is usually a coronation. But this year it has the makings of a palace bloodbath, as two former Sheriff's administrators have announced they plan to unseat four-term incumbent Lee Baca.
Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who retired Aug. 1, announced his candidacy this morning at a press conference in Griffith Park. Tanaka vowed to restore accountability, improve the department's hiring practices and “bring much-needed order to the house.”
On Wednesday, former Commander Bob Olmsted launched his own campaign, and said he holds both Tanaka and Baca responsible for the department's “corruption and cronyism.”
“Paul Tanaka and Lee Baca created this mess together,” Olmsted said in a statement.
Baca has been battered in recent years by investigations into deputy abuse of inmates in the county jails. Critics have portrayed him as aloof, often jetting off to law enforcement conferences around the world and failing to recognize the problems until they were out of hand.
After the county's Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence issued a damning report last fall, Baca pledged reform. The commission's report was especially tough on Tanaka, faulting him for interfering with efforts to address jail violence and discipline problem deputies. Among the commission's recommendations was that Baca remove Tanaka from oversight of the jail system.
Though he pledged his support for Tanaka initially, the two had a falling out and Tanaka retired.
Parke Skelton, Baca's political consultant, took issue with Tanaka's pledge to restore accountability to the department.
“It's a little disingenuous for him to come out and say he's going to be the paladin for reform when he was the greatest obstacle to reform as undersheriff,” Skelton said.
Olmsted is best known as the whistleblower who tried to bring attention to jail violence three years ago but was thwarted by both Tanaka and Baca. At this point, the question is whether he will be able to gather enough financial and institutional support to mount a credible campaign.
“When Bob Olmsted demonstrates his campaign's credibility through endorsements and fundraising, I think he'll quickly become the only viable alternative to Lee Baca,” said John Thomas, Olmsted's consultant. “Tanaka's part of the problem.”
Tanaka's campaign expects to have strong support from the department's rank-and-file. Tanaka appeared at today's press conference surrounded by supporters, including many active-duty Sheriff's captains.
Tanaka argued that he was not in the chain of command over the jails during the period of the worst abuses.
“I was nowhere in the organizational chart where that was my responsibility in any way, shape or form,” he said.
But Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the citizens' commission, took issue with that, saying that Tanaka interjected himself in jail issues even when the jails were not under his command.
“We did see evidence that suggested that, at least in tone of what he said, the undersheriff did not create a spirit of compliance within the letter of the law,” Krinsky said.
This morning, Tanaka said repeatedly that he would bring “clear, consistent and sensible” leadership to the department — an implicit contrast with Baca, who often seems to be the opposite of those things.
Asked about the commission's report, Tanaka said, “That was their report, that was their opinion. I didn't have an opportunity to provide a response that I thought would be fairly represented, so I can't argue with what they had to say. … You will never find a time in my past where I encouraged, tolerated or condoned misbehavior or misconduct by anybody in law enforcement.”
Tanaka declined to comment about Olmsted, but when asked why Tanaka himself hadn't raised some of Olmsted's concerns, he said, “I was not raised to be a whistleblower.”
As for Baca, Tanaka compared him to a coach who has lost the confidence of his team. “At times, it reaches a point where the message is lost on the players and the team,” Tanaka said. “I believe it's time for a new voice and a new leader in the Sheriff's Department.”
The primary election will be held on June 3, 2014. If no one gets a majority, the general election will be held the following Nov. 4.