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.”
Hunter’s supporters say his three-decade ascension to Anaheim P.D.’s deputy chief proves he needs no sugar daddy to succeed. If you watch him in debates, as I have repeatedly, you’ll recognize his authoritative, dry oratory. Hunt is on fire at most events. Hutchens often looks like she’d rather be somewhere else. And Hunter, well, in comparison with Hunt, he admits he’s not a “rah-rah guy,” though he thoroughly enjoys refereeing high-school and college football games.
“I’ve been told that to win, I need to excite crowds like Bill does,” said Hunter. “But he’s stacking those crowds with his supporters. People come up to me after events and say, ‘We’re so glad you’re calm, and we love what you say.’ There is no comparison between us. He’s not even qualified to be a police chief or an assistant sheriff. When you put it in those terms, people get it.”
Though Hunter has a just-the-facts style, impressions that he’s cold-hearted crumble when you spend in-depth, one-on-one time with him. He’s got a good, self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s well-versed on intricate policing issues, and while he believes Hutchens is “a nice lady,” he thinks she’s “in over her head.” He’s proud that he’s in charge of daily police operations for one of the safest major cities in the nation. He doesn’t run from tough questions. In opposition to Hunt’s confrontational stances, he says, he’d use “the power of the badge to bring people together.” Unlike Hutchens, he readily concedes there is an “unfortunate” code of silence among inept and dirty law-enforcement officers. That’s an ironic statement according to his critics—among them the feisty Friends of Fullerton’s Future blog. But Hunter insists he’s faced only “two complaints in 32 years—including one from a man upset that his car was towed in the rain.”
According to Hunter, one fact should be paramount for voters: “There is no substitute for experience, and I have a proven track record at a preeminent law-enforcement agency.”
Entering the final stretch of the race, Hunter is confident he’s “in a good position.” If he’s mistaken, however, he’s got a prediction. “If it’s Hunt who makes the runoff [with Sheriff Hutchens], he’s going to get smoked,” he said. “People will spend a lot of money to make sure he doesn’t ever become sheriff. He would be terrible.”
This column appeared in print as “Who Is Craig Hunter? When the Mike Schroeder-supported candidate is not the fire-breathing right-winger on the ballot, you know you’re in for a wild, weird sheriff’s race.”
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.