Now We Begin the Real Sheriff Sandra Hutchens Era

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In the waning days of the campaign for sheriff, a resigned but not defeated Sandra Hutchens argued a point to an unreceptive group of voters in Newport Beach, handed the microphone to rival Bill Hunt and said something like "This crowd is yours again."

Time and again, Hunt dominated events with passionate, if often controversial, speeches that once drove an elderly, white-haired woman to bang her cane on the floor in delight.

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Photo by John Gilhooley
Turns out Sandra Hutchens held all the aces in the sheriff's race.
The former sheriff's lieutenant who championed the tea-party movement and anti-illegal-immigrant interests inspired a large army of supporters to canvas neighborhoods with his literature. Feedback from voters was glowing for Hunt, they observed.

A feeling of invincibility emerged in the Hunt camp. Almost everyone concluded he'd block Hutchens from gaining the needed 50 percent-plus-one vote and force the contest to a November runoff. Indeed, Hunt firmly believed he would finish first, in large part because of conservative, tea-party blowback against the administration of President Barack Obama and wild government-spending habits.

But a funny thing happened on the way to claiming victory--or a piece of it.

Hutchens--the least conservative candidate--won first place with almost 52 percent of the vote. She also avoided a runoff with Hunt, who came in a distant second at 28 percent. Craig Hunter, Anaheim's deputy police chief, finished last with 20 percent.

(Voter turnout was horrible: less than 20 percent countywide.)

It turned out that Hutchens--a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department official who was appointed to the OC job by the county's Board of Supervisors in June 2008 after the IRS and FBI arrested her predecessor--quietly held all the aces in the race: She wasn't Mike Carona, the three-term sheriff who drove the department into an ethical cesspool.

That's a powerful point.

For two years, Hutchens has been politically hamstrung because she was appointed to the job. But she refused to morph into a shameless, calculating candidate to win the office. To some veteran campaign professionals, it seemed a gamble. If you were building a winning candidate, Hutchens might be the last model you'd select from the shelf. She can't hide that she's hugely uncomfortable on the campaign trail. Words don't roll off her tongue.

But the sheriff isn't just apolitical. She wouldn't see a public relations nightmare heading her way if it were on a horn-blasting locomotive and she were tied to the tracks. Now, there is a positive angle to that trait. Holding to the righteousness of her beliefs and actions, the Dana Point resident repeatedly refused to cave into pressure to please crowds.

Hutchens' pitch for election was largely devoid of flash or trickery, though as Election Day approached, she did smear the deputies' union for endorsing Hunt as tainted even though she'd sought that same support. Her primary theme: She'd inherited a department in shambles and had made critical strides in reforming it.

Voters obviously believe she has earned the right to continue her policies for the next four years.

This election must sting local gun-rights lobbyists, who angrily viewed Hutchens as a liberal, anti-gun figure. They'd wanted Hunt or Hunter, believing they'd be significantly more open in the distribution of concealed-weapon permits. In perhaps the defining moment of her campaign, Hutchens defiantly told audiences to vote for one of her opponents if they wanted a less-restrictive gun-toting policy.

So we now begin the real Hutchens era at California's second-largest policing agency. At about 9 p.m. last night, when the first round of election returns gave her an insurmountable 41,000-vote lead just from absentee ballots, she became the most powerful government official in OC. The supervisors, who'd appointed her and then quickly soured on her style, likely won't be as openly rude now to the county's first elected female sheriff.

Now, with the trappings of an $800 million annual budget and 3,600 employees comes the question: Will Hutchens stick to a reform agenda or, like her predecessors, succumb to the potent intoxication of the office?
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly
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