‘I’m the Sheriff First and a Politician Second’
Less than a year since she was appointed OC’s top cop, Sandra Hutchens has already made some powerful enemies
I’m sitting in the lounge area of an oversized, second-story, executive office in Santa Ana, sipping freshly made coffee and chatting—civilly and on-the-record, no less—with the sheriff of Orange County. For years, I chased down all kinds of sordid stories about former sheriff Mike Carona, now a disgraced, convicted felon looking for work from a former Florida narcotics trafficker. It’s safe to say that Carona despises me for helping to expose his true face. If he could only see me now: sitting in his onetime off-limits inner sanctum, the spot where he liked to un-holster his, uh, passion with a county secretary and, while the reputation of his $800 million-per-year department crumbled, spent untold hours planning outings with amoral but generous businessmen eager to befriend a powerful, two-faced lawman.
But the sheriff who is four feet away from me isn’t Carona. She’s not even a man. She’s a smiling Sandra Sue Hutchens, the third female sheriff in California’s 158 years of existence.
Last June, Hutchens lobbied the county’s Board of Supervisors to appoint her over nearly 50 other applicants seeking to finish the two remaining years of Carona’s term. By promising major reforms at a department that had been internationally scarred by her predecessor’s copious scandals, the Dana Point resident got the job in a startling 3-2 vote, defeating the conventional-wisdom favorite, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters. Her staff notes that one of her stated goals—rejecting Carona’s bunker mentality for increased transparency—is genuine and demonstrated by my very presence inside the headquarters of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD).
So there we are, in a once-sullied office, both quietly sizing each other up. Like mine, Hutchens’ eyes are still sleepy for our early-morning rendezvous. She’s polite and focused. Her tall, slim, 54-year-old frame is covered in a neat, black pantsuit. Her chin-length hair is styled in its usual, shampoo-commercial-ready bob.
We quickly find three things in common. We like to rise early, take hikes and cherish books. On this day, she’s excited because she’s awaiting delivery of a Kindle 2, on which she’ll download her favorites: crime mysteries, popular fiction (from the likes of John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell and Alice Sebold) and business-leadership tomes.
Not much is widely known about Hutchens the woman, not the cop. I discover a few of her personal likes: Letterman over Leno (“He’s funnier”); seafood (particularly crab legs or salmon) over steak; wine over beer (either red or white); hiking to couch crashing (“Walking with my husband gives me time to decompress”); baseball over football or basketball (she’s an Angels fan who wishes she could attend more games); the beach over mountains; talk radio over music while driving (NPR or KFI’s Bill Handel and John & Ken); classic rock and jazz over country (she favors the Beatles, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and singers Diana Krall and Sarah McLachlan); uniform over plain clothes (“It’s important for the public to see the sheriff in uniform”); patience over confrontation (“Confrontation rarely results in anything long-lasting”); dogs over cats (her dog, Tucker, whom she rescued from a local shelter, is a 70-pound, 18-month-old golden doodle); George W. Bush (“He’s not a great speaker, but he always spoke from his heart”) and Ronald Reagan (“He was a uniter, and he said, ‘There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets credit’”).
I ask her to surprise me with a revelation about herself. She tells me two: As a teenager, her first job was as a clerk in a sandwich-and-ice-cream shop, and “I got robbed!” Second: “Well, my father was a construction worker and an alcoholic,” she says. “That’s one reason I left home at 17. I wouldn’t say he was physically abusive. It was verbal abuse, a tough environment to live in . . . So I didn’t come from the perfect background.”
Later in our conversation, she tells me that she agrees that journalists “have to hold us [cops] accountable,” a hollow phrase when uttered by Carona. She does have some criticism for local media, however. She explains that The Orange County Register too often mixes news reporting with “its political ideology.” She believes that by downplaying or ignoring her accomplishments, the paper hasn’t always given her a fair shake. When I push for details, she pauses, mentions that they refused to publish a letter from her (an accusation that, I later learned, was mistaken), laughs and says, “Look, like cops, there are some bad reporters.”
Admitting publicly that bad cops exist is sacrilege in certain gung-ho police circles. For example, Jo Ann Galisky, an assistant sheriff under Carona, tossed reality to the wind and told me she knew of no wrongdoing by any deputy during Carona’s nine-year reign. Federal agents at his corruption trial described the affliction best: that Carona and his loyalists routinely molded their version of truth from self-serving lies. Some of those lies were eventually exposed, resulting in unprecedented criminal convictions against Carona and two of his assistant sheriffs.
“I thought it was pretty sad what was going on,” says Hutchens, who watched the events in retirement from a senior position at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “But look at the previous sheriff and his two assistant sheriffs, Mr. [George] Jaramillo and Mr. [Don] Haidl. Carona worked in the courts [as a longtime county bailiff], not in the jails or on patrol. Jaramillo had been a police lieutenant for a day before he became assistant sheriff, and Haidl had no law-enforcement background. I don’t think any of us should be surprised by what happened, given all of that.”
According to Hutchens, fallout from the scandals got so bad that veteran deputies who’d always been proud to wear the department’s olive-green uniform in public were hearing nasty comments from citizens. “Morale got pretty bad,” she says.
Hutchens’ priorities have included restoring morale “to all the fine men and women” who work at the sheriff’s department and rebuilding the “public’s trust in our uniform.” Part of accomplishing both objectives, she tells me, is to punish internal corruption when it’s discovered. Lying is now grounds for dismissal, and she has installed “an early warning system” to detect potential problems.
“My predecessor had a hands-off policy [about investigating deputy conduct],” she says. “He wanted to keep everybody happy. . . . Is the system now perfect? No, but the difference is, I’m going to look into [public] complaints.”
On the job for nine months, how does she rate her performance?
“We are out from under the cloud,” replies Hutchens, before sipping her coffee (cream, no sugar). “Nobody’s calling this department corrupt anymore, and I’m getting positive feedback from the community.”
Exit Carona. Enter Hutchens. Find nirvana?
It’s not that simple. Our new reform-touting sheriff has found herself mired in bitter controversies, the subject of a “vote of no confidence” measure crafted by fellow Republicans, and the target of intense, behind-the-scenes efforts to thwart her winning her office outright during the 2010 election.
* * *
A former high-school history teacher from Fullerton, Chris Norby is a gregarious, conservative county supervisor who will leave office next year due to term limits. On a recent afternoon inside his fifth-floor Hall of Administration digs with sweeping views of inland OC, he’s firing off opinions about unrelated topics: a death, a sports concept, an upcoming anti-redevelopment forum, the president’s Costa Mesa visit and Mission Viejo politics. Then, he stops and says, “Well, let’s talk about the reason you’re here. I’m sure some people look at her favorably as the anti-Carona.”
The “her” he’s talking about is Hutchens. By “some people,” it’s clear he means me. Along with Supervisor Bill Campbell, Norby voted for Walters to replace Carona. Nothing personal against Hutchens, he says. He believed the Santa Ana police chief and another candidate, LA Sheriff Commander Ralph Martin, were “far more qualified,” but he initially accepted losing that battle.
“Having a woman sheriff is a novelty, and it’s a nice novelty to have, especially after Carona,” says Norby, dressed in a tan suit and sitting in front of numerous framed personal photographs hanging on the wall behind his chair. He’s flanked by a large Apple computer monitor on his left and two ripe bananas on his right. His desk holds 11 stacks of papers and binders. A nearby conference table is covered in a blue-and-white picnic cloth. “After her selection, I even thought, ‘Great, we’ve got a Republican woman from South County in the job.”
But that enthusiasm evaporated quickly last year. Asked twice what he now thinks she’s accomplished, Norby pauses each time and says he can’t name a single item. He also finds her to be thin-skinned. He goes on to tell me that Hutchens, who used to visit him early in her appointment, stopped the practice after his public criticisms. He recalls, “I haven’t seen her in my office in months.” They communicate either through a lower-ranking sheriff’s official or not at all.
“I questioned Sheriff Carona, too,” says Norby. “He spent money on annual public-opinion surveys that he said proved the effectiveness of his department fighting crime. It was meaningless information that wasted public money. He didn’t like me saying that, but, hey, I can take it just like I can dish it out. It’s politics.”
There’s the rub for Norby. He sees Hutchens as an outsider from LA and, worse, a control freak with totalitarian instincts who doesn’t understand a simple rule in politics: “Don’t fix what’s not broken.”
He’s talking about the sheriff’s permits allowing certain qualified citizens to carry concealed weapons (CCW) in public. Soon after taking office, Hutchens abandoned what was considered Carona’s liberal policy. No longer would permits be distributed with little or no thought or, worse, based on contributions to the sheriff’s campaign committee. Anyone seeking a permit (or wanting to keep one) would have to demonstrate “good cause” (for example, a person who carries large amounts of cash in his job or is the subject of death threats) for needing it.
Hostile blowback from gun-rights advocates, including National Rifle Association members, was swift, rocking Norby and other four members of the all-Republican Board of Supervisors. They complained to Hutchens, who has sole responsibility for deciding the county’s CCW policy.
“I’ve never owned a gun, but what she did was spark a revolt,” says Norby. “She didn’t have to do it. Why bother things? No harm, no foul, right? They [permit holders] are not the enemy. These are law-abiding people like Mike Schroeder [an insurance-company owner and political adviser to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas as well as Carona]. There wasn’t a problem. Hutchens has dug in her heels on the CCW issue, and I’m not sure why. I guess she feels they were given out too loosely by Sheriff Carona.”
In heated public and private meetings, board members (who are paying rapt attention to gun-owner outrage and its potential to influence upcoming elections) failed to change Hutchens’ mind or entice her to compromise. Her stance demonstrates that the sheriff has “a midlevel bureaucratic mindset” and is ungrateful for the job, according to the supervisor.
Norby says, “I think some board members who voted to appoint her are thinking, ‘Hey, I appointed you. I stuck my neck out for you. Why are you making things so tough on me?’ Right now, she’s never won an election. She doesn’t have the political mandate from the voters that we do. If she’d been smart about the CCWs, she would have left things in place until after she’d won the election. Then, there might not be an issue at all. But because she’s been appointed, the way I see it is her revocation policy is extreme.”
The NRA has joined Norby in his critique, and the organization has noisily hinted that its members will flood donations to a Hutchens election opponent, though no one, including Walters, has yet officially announced a campaign.
Even union president Wayne J. Quint Jr. of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs believes Hutchens botched the CCW issue.
“I like her personally, but I think she’s politically naive,” says Quint. “As far as any sheriff’s endorsement, I’d say right now the deputies’ union is taking a wait-and-see approach to the upcoming election.”
If the Board of Supervisors had to appoint a sheriff today, the chances of Hutchens winning would be faint, largely due to the CCW drama. But Hutchens tells me she won’t be bullied.
“I take this [CCW] issue very seriously,” she says. “I’m taking the common-sense approach. I don’t view that I have broad discretion to issue the permits. I have to issue them for good cause. That’s the law.”
And the political pressure to bend?
“Typically in politics, you see people give contributions, and they get what they want,” the sheriff says. “When they don’t, they’re mad. There’ve been some thinly veiled [political] threats, but I shouldn’t react to those. Not everybody who asks for a CCW has a right to one.”
She describes her opponents on the issue as “trying to distort my position” by claiming that she’s trying to confiscate people’s guns.
“The CCW area is such a small part of what I do, but it’s been a lightning rod for some people,” she says. “It’s been a distraction to what I’m trying to accomplish in the department, and that’s been hard.”
Dave Gilliard is a Republican campaign strategist who’s working for Hutchens. He says the CCW issue is a positive “when voters read Hutchens’ policy and don’t just rely on the blogs.”
“Look, we now have a sheriff who is going to follow the law,” Gilliard says. “And after the last sheriff, that may take getting used to by some folks, but most people like that idea.”
* * *
Shifting from retired deputy to public official seeking election to the most powerful office in OC hasn’t been seamless for Hutchens. In each of my previous encounters with her, it had been increasingly obvious that she likes to establish clear boundaries for interaction and won’t hesitate to rebuke someone who crosses those lines. For example, last year, a national right-wing website alleged that the sheriff was part of a secret Jewish anti-Second Amendment plot to disarm citizens. I didn’t think Hutchens was Jewish, but in preparation for a news item about the sensational accusation, I called John McDonald, a press officer at the OCSD, and asked him to identify the sheriff’s generic religious affiliation, a commonly disclosed fact by candidates. The answer from Hutchens, via McDonald, was that it was “none of your business,” plus a verbal “how dare you ask” slap.
At the end of a joint interview on KUCI’s The OC Show With Cameron Jackson in February, I told the sheriff that I planned to attend her official and political events for a couple of weeks.
Can you call me and let me know what’s on your schedule? I asked.
“John will call you,” she replied. “I’m not calling you.”
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.
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.
“I’m distrustful about government interference, too, and that extends to law enforcement,” says Hutchens, who—unlike Carona—drives herself and doesn’t travel with a large security detail. “We have to be careful with the power we have been given.”
She attributes her stance, in part, to a 1980s trip to East Germany. “It was when the [Berlin] wall was still up,” the sheriff says. “I was on a train in the middle of the night, and the police boarded and demanded to see everyone’s papers. That was a good lesson to me.”
Not all of the supervisors are ready to pan the sheriff. Pat Bates, one of the three supervisors who appointed Hutchens, disagrees with the CCW policy and wasn’t elated about Supe Snoop, but she says she is “taking a wait-and-see approach” about the sheriff’s overall performance because “it’s too early to tell.”
“We’re waiting to see how she will handle the real big problems at the sheriff’s department—the jails and her budget issues,” Bates says.
If Hutchens has a cheerleader on the panel, it’s Moorlach. “Overall, I’d give her an A-minus or a B-plus,” he says. “She stepped into a place where her predecessor liked to be sheriff but didn’t like to do sheriff. She’s been aggressively tackling a number of problems, and as a whole, I’m getting really good feedback about her from my constituents. In fact, I think she’s going to be tough to beat in an election.”
But pollster Adam Probolsky, a CCW recipient from Carona, says Hutchens is doomed. “She’s got an LA-centric mentality, is too aggressive and has a total lack of political acumen,” he says. “She loses no matter who runs against her.”
* * *
After more than 70 minutes alone with Hutchens during the interview in her executive office, I was ready to ask the question I had saved for last: As a first-time candidate, could she handle a rough campaign?
Hutchens says, “I find here in the county . . . well, we Republicans have a tendency to eat our own.”
I scribble her words on a notepad, and then remain silent, hoping she’ll continue unprompted.
“What I hope to see in the upcoming election is a discussion about policy and the philosophy of policing—not the personal attacks,” she continues.
Is she concerned that Schroeder, no Hutchens fan and a brass-knuckles GOP campaign strategist, has twice dined in recent months with Walters, her biggest potential challenger?
“I don’t cringe because, in the end, I’ll respect what the voters decide,” says Hutchens, who last week revoked the CCW permit Carona had given Schroeder because, in her view, he didn’t have “good cause” to have one. “If they like what the department’s doing, they’ll elect me.”
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She pauses for a moment, and there’s a knock at her door. Four assistants are waiting to usher her to a public event in Huntington Beach. OC’s 12th sheriff acknowledges them, they close the door, and she turns upbeat, showing me her feisty independent spirit one final time.
“I’m not going to change my positions to get elected,” says Hutchens. “I’m going to do the right thing. I am seeking support from Democrats, Republicans and independents. I’m the sheriff first and a politician second, and I think I’m going to get elected.”