Bill Hunt's Remarkable Rise

Bill Hunt works the crowd
Christopher Victorio

During a Republican sheriff’s-candidate forum inside a gated Mission Viejo community in late March, the audience voiced concerns about the federal government limiting water supplies to California communities. Bill Hunt, the former sheriff’s lieutenant turned PI, grabbed a microphone, then stood and gazed confidently around the room before offering his solution.

“I’d put together an armed posse of deputies at the shut-off value,” said a dead-serious Hunt, winning generous applause from the Casta Del Sol Republican Club. He knew, he told me later, that his confrontational stance would win over the elderly crowd.

Seated nearby, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens wore the strained expression of someone who’d just smelled something vile.

Craig Hunter, the deputy police chief in Anaheim and another Hutchens challenger, shook his head in disgust.

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“It’s irresponsible to say you’d put armed sheriff’s deputies in front of armed federal agents,” he said. “That’s not a mature response.”

The audience booed.

When it was her turn to field the question, Hutchens said, “We don’t need a rogue sheriff in this county. We already had one, and that didn’t work out too well, did it?”

The crowd—which had likely supported Sheriff Mike Carona before the IRS and FBI arrested him on corruption charges after the 2006 election—sat silently.

“I don’t agree with all the laws, but that doesn’t change my responsibility,” she explained. “Taking on the federal government is not the elected sheriff’s responsibility.”

Scattered angry boos greeted her words.

No fool, Hunt ignored the next audience question and returned to fertile turf.

“Who is being rogue?” he said, mocking Hutchens, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s official who was appointed by county supervisors in 2008 to fill the remainder of Carona’s term. “I’ll stand up for you. Leadership is standing up when it’s not popular. I’ll stand up and tell the federal government, ‘You’re wrong,’ and they’ll leave!”

Hunt was still talking about water, but his answer could have applied to any issue in which the federal authorities are, in his view, violating the U.S. Constitution by illegally expanding their powers (gun and ammunition laws) or simply failing (illegal immigration). A majority of the crowd—folks likely born between the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover—clapped or hooted in appreciation. My most memorable image is of a white-haired woman who expressed her support for Hunt by repeatedly banging her wood cane on the floor and yelling something inaudible. While Hutchens and Hunter looked on this scene uncomfortably, Hunt nodded in appreciation. To him, the noise must have sounded like . . . victory.

So far, the most startling aspect of the 2010 race for sheriff is Hunt’s rise. Just four years ago, he was rudely shunned in many Republican Party circles for his run against his then-popular, incumbent boss—a pre-arrested Carona. Phone calls weren’t returned. Contributions barely trickled in. Promised invitations to speak to groups never materialized. The right-wing California Republican Assembly (CRA) even endorsed Carona, an egomaniac devoid of political convictions, without letting Hunt, an unabashed conservative, address them.

This year’s CRA convention was proof of Hunt’s newfound political viability. He went from 2006’s persona non grata to coming within just three votes of winning the group’s endorsement in February. He crushed both Hunter and Hutchens—neither of whom has ever run for public office—in the tally.

That’s a remarkable feat, in part, because the only people the CRA folks hate more than gays and women who have abortions are employee-union leaders. Hunt entered the CRA convention having recently refused to comply with a demand by Orange County GOP boss Scott Baugh for all Republican candidates to reject union endorsements and contributions. Baugh’s move was a thinly veiled attempt to embarrass Hunt, who was at the time poised to capture the critical support of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS).

Late last month, AOCDS membership rejected their boss, Hutchens, as well as Hunter, and endorsed Hunt. You won’t be surprised to learn that Baugh’s wing of the local GOP—the one that protected Carona while he destroyed the sheriff’s department—favors Hunter and hopes to use the party’s influential apparatus to aid him on election day. Though they won’t admit it publicly, their principal gripe against Hunt is that he’s too independent. Multiple private attempts last year to convert Hunt into a GOP tool failed, sources tell me.

That’s the other notable angle. Like his political hero, Ronald Reagan, Hunt has remained true to his often-rebellious stances and watched once-wary voters embrace his cause. At the Mission Viejo event, for example, neither Hutchens nor Hunter motivated the audience to enthusiastically clap a single time. Hunt won six separate rounds of applause.

How did he do it? In a forceful tone, he promised to model his performance on that of notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, saying he would fight amnesty for illegal immigrants, start forcing everyone arrested on misdemeanor charges to go to jail and seek bail, advocate cuts in public subsidies to the criminal-defense bar working on behalf of the indigent, refuse to allow early release for any inmate, increase department accountability to the public, have a far-less-restrictive concealed-weapons-permit policy than his opponents, and stand up against the liberal likes of Jerry Brown or federal bureaucrats.

“Politics and political pressure will not stop me from doing the job of sheriff,” he said. “I’ll be obligated to step up and fight for our constitutional liberties.”

Hunt’s alignment with Arpaio prompted Hunter to call the Arizona sheriff “an overzealous . . . racist.”

The crowd booed again, and Hunt pounced.

“You call Joe Arpaio a racist?” he said. “That’s what happens when a sheriff stands up and does his duty!”

By the loud cheers, you might have thought Denny’s had begun its 4 p.m. dinner service. One attendee, who had told me he was undecided before the forum, said he’ll vote for Hunt. “[Hutchens] is too wishy-washy,” concluded the man, who described himself as a retired advertising executive. “Hunter has some good experience in Anaheim, but I got the feeling he also has a chip on his shoulder. Hunt impressed me the most. He doesn’t seem afraid to do the job right.”

Afterward, Hunt felt victorious. He believes he can win the June election by winning more than 50 percent of the vote and avoid a run-off between the top two candidates. It’s a ballsy prediction, but that is Hunt’s mindset.

Conditions might just favor him. Incredibly, for only the second time in 35 years, Orange County doesn’t have its elected sheriff running for re-election. That makes Hunt the most experienced campaigner in this race.

“I’m having fun, and I know what I’m doing,” he said. “People in Orange County want bold, conservative leadership, and I’m going to give it to them.”

This column appeared in print as "The Fall & Rise of Bill Hunt: Will Mike Carona’s ex-punching bag be Orange County’s next sheriff?"


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