What kind of political race puts the challenger on the defensive? Exactly the kind of contest you had until recently for the highest-paid law-enforcement job in the county. In the battle for the almost $250,000-a-year post of sheriff, the hound – insurgent Lee Baca – seemed to be running from the hare – Sheriff Sherman Block.

This wily role reversal by Block is probably the best argument to date that he remains sharp enough to keep his job. His four-term tenure has been surpassed locally in modern times only by former Mayor Tom Bradley and former county Supervisor Kenny Hahn. Both men had the good sense to die with their boots off, having reluctantly retired from public office several years before their deaths. But if Sherm Block gets his way, it may well be the county coroner who escorts Block from office for the last time.

Block is now as old as Bradley was in 1992, when the mayor finally decided to hang it up. And if the sheriff lacks a latter-day Bradley debit – like the Rodney King riots – he has many lesser but significant professional disgraces to live down: felonious corruption in his senior procurement staff, reports of unlawfully aggressive deputies, the early releases of dangerous prisoners, and a custody arm – including the Twin Towers lockup – that looks almost out of control. These flaws are sufficient, you would think, to provide lethal campaign ammunition to the mildest of challengers.

For a long time, though, you just weren't hearing about this stuff from Lee Baca, who served under Block for 16 years until he retired this year to focus on unseating his boss. Inexplicably, Baca seemed almost to stop campaigning after the primary, after forcing Block into the first general-election challenge for the office of sheriff since 1914. (And no, Block hasn't held the office since 1914; it only seems that way.)

It was Block who was on the offensive, accusing his opponent of trying to lure him into an illegal backroom retirement deal and, later, of failing to come clean about the same. Block also kept pecking at Baca's peccadilloes, such as not voting in two recent elections.

This pattern, with Baca as Block's punching bag, may have finally changed. After a month of increasingly tough – if little-viewed – televised debates, the action peaked during a KCBS colloquy aired Sunday morning, during which former division chief Baca was on the attack. (It's hard to say who caught on to this “new” Baca, given that the debate aired at 5:30 a.m.)

Baca's main thrust was to focus on the obvious: Block's age and ongoing health problems. (The sheriff is on three-day-a-week dialysis due to the side effects of medications that put his cancer into remission; he's also been cleared for a kidney transplant.) Can Block handle the huge responsibilities of the 12,000-member department that's responsible for policing most of the county's 4,000 square miles? No, said Baca last week: “Block fails to acknowledge that his advancing age and declining health have caused the decline of his department.”

In addition to raising the perpetual health/age issues, Baca at long last took a slam at the jail situation that he'd mostly ignored since spring. To wit, that jails are one of the department's two prime responsibilities, and Block's jail oversight has been pretty irresponsible.

Block's response to the energized Baca was familiar. He assaulted Baca for trying to “cut a backroom deal with special perks,” including a county car and office, to get Block to retire and hand the job (pending approval of the county supervisors) to Baca. When Baca, in turn, accused Block of making a similar deal with Block's predecessor, Peter Pitchess, Block exploded into denial. Pitchess didn't get the car, Block insisted.

Block omitted saying that Pitchess, car or no car, did hand the job over to Block. And that Pitchess had earlier cut a similar deal with his own predecessor, Eugene Biscailuz.

In truth, it appears that Baca did try to pull a deal with Block, but this transaction was sanctioned by tradition. In the end, it was Block who decided to break with tradition and turn Baca's offer of a comfortable retirement against him. Baca then sullied his credibility further by rattling off assorted, contradictory versions of these negotiations once they became public.

This “deal and denial” remains Block's key campaign issue. For all the recent acrimony, a vigorous debate over the department itself, a contest of ideas, has been noticeably absent – even conspicuously ignored. Like what does either man propose to do about that slipshod custody department? Other California counties have revamped jail operations by creating a new class of specialized officers. This frees higher-salaried deputies to fight crime – what they're trained to do – while leaving jail management to people trained to do that function more professionally. The same rationale should also be applied to deputies who could be moved from desk jobs to active duty by turning over some jobs to civilians. Other unmentioned, possible reforms include the long-evaded proposal to save a bundle by combining the lab and training facilities of the Sheriff and the Los Angeles Police Department.

While the debates have been worth a look, the most intriguing indicators in the race so far are statistical: Block's been harvesting big campaign money in traditional Westside fund-raising venues. He's nailed big donations from realtors, key business leaders and celebrities. Baca, however, has been leading Block in overall fund-raising in the last quarter, by $140,000 to $126,000. The total for the year to date is Baca's $465,000 to Block's $333,000. Baca's handlers stress that his total includes many more smaller contributions, suggesting broader support. Whatever the case, Baca's fund-raising is impressive for a non-incumbent, but the challenger still hasn't negated more than $200,000 that Block's got left over in his war chest from past campaigns.

Block also has an incumbent's roster of endorsements: 47 local police chiefs, both the departmental unions, all the county supervisors, and even Miguel Contreras, head of the County Federation of Labor and one of the most influential Latinos in Southern California. Baca's strongest backing is from other local Latino leaders, though he also has support in the east-county Asian community.

And how does the outcome look? Judging from the results of June's primary, Block is strongest in the San Fernando Valley and the west and south county areas, with Baca's fortress of support in the San Gabriel Valley, where the department has a larger public presence. In most of this area's cities, as well as in its unincorporated areas, Baca managed to surge ahead of Block in June. Yet neither candidate got a clear majority anywhere.

Historically, Block has fought off critics by responding aggressively to problems – such as the early release of inmates – once they become scandals. But with each passing year, he seems even less proactive.

As for Baca, his primary burden remains his prime qualification – his generally noteworthy career in the Sheriff's Department Office. Even Block admitted last week – under some pressure – that Baca's record in law enforcement was a least “fair.” It was Block, after all, who kept promoting Baca until he rose to chief of the department's Division 2, after field experience in most of the department's operations. Yet this record is also Baca's major liability. For Baca had more than enough authority to face responsibility for things that went wrong. Such as the recently reported fast turnover and personnel problems in the Century Station – one of the department's newest and largest Sheriff's stations, which was in Baca's division.

Of course, it's downright bizarre to see Block blame his former subordinate for so many mishaps. I guess you'll never hear Block say, “The buck stops here.” Where was Block when Baca was being so incompetent within the department? Did he not notice as long as Baca remained loyal? At the same time, if Block is ultimately accountable – and he is – Baca also must confess culpability in failing to confront the department's need for major changes. Yes, each contender can blame the other for departmental problems. But not without the accusation falling back on the accuser.

This paradox illustrates how dangerously inbred the department's hierarchy has become. It's fair to question whether either candidate can sufficiently distinguish himself from the other, and whether the 56-year-old Baca represents a choice for real change.

Block keeps painting Baca as a flake who just hasn't got it together to be an effective sheriff. But to many, Block looks increasingly overextended as he campaigns all-out at age 74 while peering over his shoulder at possible kidney-transplant surgery. He's promised us another full term. But how will he look in two years? Will anyone be in charge of the world's largest sheriff's department by then? The voters may well decide that on-the-job flakiness is preferable to on-the-stretcher frailty.

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