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By Charles Lam
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By Gustavo Arellano
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It was near the end of his April 10 presentation to a political group in Los Alamitos when Craig Hunter, a candidate for Orange County sheriff, declared that another Republican hopeful, Bill Hunt, wasn’t fit to lead California’s second-largest police agency.
“Hunt belongs to the Oath Keepers,” said a solemn-faced Hunter, the deputy police chief of Anaheim. “They think we’re on the verge of the end of the world with [President Barack] Obama. These people, military and police, say that if they believe the feds try to violate our rights, they will stand down, refuse to follow orders.”
For whatever reason—but probably because, like me, the audience of about 30 at this Republican women’s group hadn’t heard of the Oath Keepers—the crowd remained quiet.
“Not following orders—that’s called a coup, a junta,” said Hunter, 52.
Several attendees moaned in agreement.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t go that far down the road,” he followed up. “My job as sheriff would be to protect the Constitution. Do you want deputies to be engaged in an armed conflict with federal agents?”
Hardly a second passed before a deep, forceful voice yelled from the back of the room, “You bet!”
The speaker was Hunt—a private investigator, former sheriff’s-department lieutenant and ex-chief of police in San Clemente—who also wants to unseat appointed Sheriff Sandra Hutchens at the $895 million-annual-budget agency. Hunt has unabashedly espoused armed intervention against what he sees as the continual constitutional overreach of federal officials. Here in Los Alamitos—where the sheriff was a last-minute no-show—he’d done it again and won some shouts of approval.
Hunter paused, letting Hunt’s words reverberate before he slowly said, “It sends cold blood down my veins when I hear [Oath Keeper-type] talk.”
His line earned claps and head nods and forced Hunt to re-address the crowd: “I need to make a correction to what Craig Hunter said. The Oath Keepers don’t have a special oath, but ask us to honor the oaths [of office] we already take. That’s not rogue, folks.”
Hunter—no pushover himself—fired back to the crowd, “Feel free to Google the Oath Keepers. You’ll be surprised.”
In a follow-up interview, he had this to say about the group’s philosophy: “It’s scary, scary. It’s bad. Bill Hunt is not electable. . . . You heard people clap for him because they don’t know the facts.”
With less than two months left before the June 8 election, it’s shaping up as a bruising contest to avoid a third-place finish. If the top candidate can’t get 50 percent plus one of the vote, the second-place finisher stays alive and earns a spot in a November run-off. Conventional wisdom is that Hutchens sits atop the field partly because unlike the last sheriff, she isn’t, for example, partying with mobsters in Newport Beach bars or screwing her secretaries in county vehicles. But both Hunt and Hunter adamantly predict that if they get her into the run-off, she’s done.
A critical moment in the race is set for April 19. That’s when the central committee of the Republican Party of Orange County is scheduled to endorse one of the candidates. Winning that approval could translate into thousands of additional votes.
“We are doing our work, but it’s not a done deal,” Hunter said of his lobbying to win the endorsement. “It’s going to be tough.”
Hutchens—who, as I first revealed in 2009, was a registered Democrat for many years while she worked at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department—has no chance of winning the party’s nod. Neither does Hunt, a solid conservative who is flagrantly violating local GOP boss Scott Baugh’s commandment that no Republican candidate can accept public-employee-union support; the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs backs Hunt, and he’s not about to reject the support of his old colleagues.
That leaves open the GOP endorsement solely for Hunter, who has agreed not to align himself with unions in elections. But it’s a bit more complicated. A candidate must win a two-thirds majority to capture the endorsement, and pro-Hunt websites have savaged Hunter for his associations with allies of the soiled Carona regime, including Mike Schroeder, the ex-sheriff’s top unofficial political adviser and a powerful force in GOP politics. Hunter scoffs at the notion that he’s in Schroeder’s pocket.
“Mike Schroeder likes to play the [political] game,” he said. “He’s good at it. He’s looked at my qualifications, and he thinks I’m the best candidate and that I can win. That gives me confidence. He’s given me a contribution, but I didn’t really know him until last year.”