Paul Tanaka, then L.A. County's undersheriff, prepares to testify at the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence in 2012. Tanaka wants to succeed Sheriff Lee Baca.
Paul Tanaka was polite on the day his one-time boss and arch-rival announced his resignation.
"I want to put politics aside for today and applaud him for his dedication to public service," the former undersheriff said of Sheriff Lee Baca. "I want to thank [him] for his decades of public service."
But Tanaka has been sharply critical of the sheriff, and wants his job. So what does Baca's decision to resign portend for the county's aspiring top cop?
"In an interesting way, Baca getting out of the race actually hurts Tanaka," says political scientist Fernando Guerra, who heads the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
Guerra says Tanaka would have been better off with his former boss in the race.
"Because he could deflect any criticism of himself by saying, 'Oh we've got to focus on Baca. He is the guy in charge,’" says Guerra. "Whereas now, Tanaka will be the focus of some of the alleged problems at the department."
Two years ago, the Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence sharply criticized Tanaka for enabling or failing to stop "a persistent pattern of unreasonable force" by sheriff's deputies against jail inmates. Concerns over Tanaka's management eventually led Baca to ask him to step down. Tanaka has denied any wrongdoing.
"I never condoned or tolerated the use of excessive force or misconduct in any form by deputy sheriffs," says Tanaka. In an interview with KPCC, Tanaka, 55, maintained Baca's departure from the race has no impact on his campaign.
"His announcement does nothing to change the message we have been putting out the last four months," he says.
Tanaka’s message is that he served for three decades with the Sheriff's Department as a leader in crime fighting and overseeing its multi-billion dollar budget. Tanaka, a Japanese American, is also the mayor of Gardena, a lawman with experience running for political office.
But there is strong resistance to Tanaka.
"Sheriff Baca has hardly been an innocent person," says Patrice Cullors, who leads The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence Inside LA Jails. "But former Undersheriff Tanaka has clearly been one of the main purveyors of perpetuating violence inside the department."
Tanaka no doubt will face greater scrutiny, with Baca out of the picture.
"Paul Tanaka is now going to have to account for the role he played during the period of time he's been in the department," says L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "He's kind of had a free ride up until now."
There are four other declared candidates: former Sheriff's Commander Bob Olmsted, former Sheriff's Lt. Patrick Gomez, LAPD Sgt. Lou Vince and — as of this week — Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers.
With the incumbent out, others are also expected to enter the race in the coming weeks. Assistant Sheriff James Hellmold, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell and LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara are said to be possible candidates.
The primary is in June.