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Long Beach police chief considers run against Baca for sheriff's job

February 5, 2013 | 10:00 am

Long Beach Police Department Police Chief Jim McDonnell, foreground right,  attends a news conference in August. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said he is considering a run against Sheriff Lee Baca next year for one of California's top law enforcement jobs.

Since Baca became sheriff 15 years ago, defeating an incumbent who died days before the vote, he has not faced a serious challenge for reelection.

But after a series of scandals and federal investigations targeting the department, experts said he may be politically vulnerable amid nearly two years of bad headlines.

McDonnell, who served as second in command to Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton before moving to Long Beach, would be the most formidable challenger Baca has faced. He was on a county commission that recently excoriated Baca's leadership, depicting him as a disengaged and uninformed manager who failed to stop jailhouse abuse and would have been fired in the private sector.

In an interview, McDonnell said he could offer "a fresh look" at the agency and reforms that "would make a big difference for ... the image of the department." He declined to discuss Baca's record, saying he wanted to speak to the sheriff first. But as a member of the commission, McDonnell had harsh words for Baca's stewardship of the agency.

McDonnell's announcement comes as Baca begins raising funds for the 2014 election, making a bid for what would be a fifth term. The campaign opens as federal authorities have launched an investigation into allegations that jail workers abused inmates and another over whether deputies harassed minorities in the Antelope Valley. The jail investigation has already resulted in criminal charges against one deputy, and federal prosecutors have not given a timetable about when the probe will be completed.

Despite these problems, political experts said defeating the four-term sheriff would be a challenge. Baca, 70, is well-known within the county, and has drawn support from a diverse set of ethnic groups and community leaders. Baca has gained a reputation for progressive law enforcement views, such as helping the homeless and providing education for jail inmates.

Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., noted that Baca has more than a year before the election to show he's made headway in fixing the department's problems. "He has the advantage of an incumbent," Sonenshein said. "He can show himself to be in charge over the next year."

Baca's spokesman, Steve Whitmore, said the sheriff does not see McDonnell as a threat: "It doesn't faze him."

McDonnell declined to say when he would make his decision, saying he was still consulting with his family and "trying to get the pulse of the county."

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-- Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard

Photo: Long Beach Police Department Police Chief Jim McDonnell, foreground right,  attends a news conference in August. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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