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But, I replied, McDonald (because of government ethics rules preventing county employees from mixing county work with campaigns) isn’t allowed to tell me about your political schedule, and I’d like to attend those, too.

“John will call you.”

She delivered the words with a half-hearted smile on her face. I felt the ice. When she left, Jackson observed that the sheriff seemed pissed-off by my request.

John Gilhooley
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens plays in a park with her dog, Tucker
John Gilhooley
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens plays in a park with her dog, Tucker

It’s possible there was a simple misunderstanding. Either way, it’s evident the sheriff is extraordinarily cautious about dropping her guard. She is, after all, a Monterey Park native who was not only tough enough to survive in the macho-dominated environment of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, but also rose from secretary in the late 1970s to near the top as a high-ranking chief in charge of thousands of deputies and Homeland Security measures for California’s largest urban area.

Some situations require finesse, though. “There have been times when I’ve said, ‘Sandy, why didn’t you ask me for advice before you acted?’” Supervisor John Moorlach said in a telephone interview from Utah. “She’s had some missteps, but she’s a novice, and I don’t question her intelligence or her integrity.”

Back in Hutchens’ office for our recent face-to-face interview, I share my observation about her independent personality. First, there’s silence. Then she nods, smiles and tells me this story: “My mother tells me that on the first day of kindergarten, I refused to let her walk me there. I was adamant, she says. Still, she shadowed me.

“I guess I’ve always been independent,” says the sheriff. “That’s who I am. I like people, being around people. But I know you can’t please everybody. When I take a stand, it’s because that’s what I’m supposed to do. People—deputies and the public—depend on me to do the right thing.”

 *     *     *

At several offices scattered around OC, the initial work to ruin Hutchens’ hopes of winning the June 2010 election is well under way. Some of these folks, all scorched-earth veterans of Republican Party politics, have asked that their identities not be revealed at this point. But they’re all motivated and full of contempt. They refer to her as “the she-riff,” mock her leadership, suggest she voted for Democrats in the past, call her a hypocrite, credit her career accomplishments to affirmative-action policies instead of merit, deride her driving skills and—are you sitting down?—consider her less ethical than Carona.

Mental rough drafts of negative advertisements that will be used against the sheriff don’t just include the CCW brouhaha or her decision to force the department’s Professional Service Responders, mostly businessmen who volunteer time or expertise, to trade in real deputy badges (given by Carona) for ones that identity them as civilian volunteers. The anti-Hutchens folks are digging for whatever dirt they can find, and so far, they think that one of the most devastating to her political future is what Norby calls the “Supe Snoop” scandal.

On Jan. 13, Hutchens sent more than 20 armed deputies to a Board of Supervisors public meeting, reasoning that protesters of her CCW policy posed a potential threat of violence. The gun-rights crowd, reporters and most supervisors were outraged by the show of force. Norby sized it up as “a militaristic response to a political situation.” Register opinion writer Steve Greenhut and Red County blog editor Matt Cunningham, among others, accused the sheriff of trying to intimidate her critics from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. The public-relations nightmare only got worse when it was discovered that a deputy at that meeting invaded the privacy of supervisors. He used ceiling-mounted surveillance cameras to spy on Norby and Supervisor Janet Nguyen, both vocal critics of Hutchens’ CCW policy. Footage shows the deputy zooming in to read Norby’s papers, handwritten notes and computer screen. He also focused on Nguyen’s Blackberry screen while she was using it. (To see the footage, click here.)

Hutchens, who didn’t authorize the snooping, quickly apologized to the supervisors, but the scandal wouldn’t go away. Supervisors tell me that she gave varying, inconsistent answers about how much snooping had occurred. Worse, they argue, when they demanded to check the DVD recordings for themselves, the sheriff initially refused, declaring the OCSD exclusive owners of the footage made from the board’s own cameras. Later, she shared edited versions. After an evolution of reasons for not wanting the supervisors or the public to see all of the footage, she finally claimed that release would jeopardize the identities of undercover deputies she’d sent into the public meeting. A majority of supervisors say hogwash.

“The sheriff has shown a lack of respect for the institution [the board],” according to one powerful Hall of Administration source who asked to not be named. “She’s been inconsistent, full of excuses and, frankly, at times, offensive.”

Hutchens doesn’t recognize the target of that criticism. From her perspective, she’s done nothing wrong and informs me that she encourages citizens to closely monitor her and other government officials.

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