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By Randy Economy
Paul Tanaka is bound and determined in being elected the next Sheriff of Los Angeles County, and he has a message to his former boss, incumbent Lee Baca.
“I am running to win, and I am running as hard as I can, and this campaign is going to be about talking openly and honestly with the voters of Los Angeles County” Tanaka told Hews Media Group-Community Newspaper in a sit down interview this past week in Cerritos.
Next year’s already tense campaign to become the “top cop” of the County of Angels has attracted nearly a half dozen challengers to Baca, and the Primary election in 2014 is still ten months away.
Tanaka is a longtime political figure in the South Bay who has established solid local bases of supporters who he says are now “100 percent committed” behind his campaign to oust Baca.
“I know why I am running, and I understand how challenging this campaign is going to become,” Tanaka said.
Tanaka was born at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles and has been a lifelong resident of Gardena. Now 55 years old, the married father of two is a graduate of Gardena High School back in the Class of 1976.
“I remember when I ran and won an election to become President of the Gardena High School Key Club. It was an exciting time in my early life,” Tanaka recalled. “My dad sat me down after I won and he told me, ‘The success of your year as Key Club President won’t be determined by the work you do, it will be determined by the people you have surrounding you,” he said.
Tanaka has not forgotten that conversation with his father some nearly 40 years ago and said that he has applied that mantra as a local elected official and now as a candidate for Sheriff.
After Gardena High School, Tanaka, who is a Baptist in faith, enrolled at the Loyola Marymount University in the Culver City/West Los Angeles area that is owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Church.
“I had the best education and had the best of both worlds at Loyola Marymount,” Tanaka said. He said he still keeps in contact with many of this past school mates from both high school and college and have relied on their loyal support for years.
Tanaka and Baca both began their professional careers in the Artesia/Cerritos community.
Baca was a former teacher at Faye Ross Junior High School in Artesia and Tanaka’s first job was around a mile away at a Certified Public Accounting Firm on the corner of Marquardt Avenue and Artesia Boulevard.
Since then Baca and Tanaka have been on similar career paths climbing the political ladder at the LA County Sheriff’s Department side by side.
Now the two are fierce rivals. “The only time I have seen Lee since I left the department was a couple of months ago a trial in Downtown LA where we were both testifying. We did exchange a hand shake, but that was it,” Tanaka said.
Tanaka has built an impressive team of early supporters and donors in his race against Baca. Tanaka announced his campaign plans under a blistering Southern California sun last month with around two dozen law enforcement officials and supporters at his side on a helicopter pad near Dodger Stadium.
The budding politician gathered a “team” of around a dozen close friends, none of whom had ever been involved in any political campaign and started to map out a plan that would eventually get him elected to the Gardena City Council.
“None of us had a clue how to run a campaign, we were running against the city hall insiders and no one ever expected us to come close in the campaign, let alone get the top vote,” he said.
Tanaka said he purchased several copies of a book written by then Congressional Speaker Tip O’Neill about “how to run for political office.” The book called “All Politics is Local: And Other Rules of the Game” became the “Tanaka Campaign Bible.”
“It was like reading a how to get elected to local office guide, so we followed the script of the book, and sure enough, we won that first election and sent a loud message to the old guard that Gardena needed to move forward with new blood,” he said.
Since then, Tanaka has never lost an election, and has become a local hero to many in Gardena for helping save the municipality from a “certain financial meltdown” in the late 1990’s.
“We were $5.2 million in the red and we were literally within hours of declaring bankruptcy but we dug in our heels,” Tanaka said. He recalled summoning Gardena’s city manager, and top executives from banks in New York in one room and told those assembled “no one is leaving this room until we get a deal to fix this crisis.”
Within hours, Tanaka and Gardena city officials had avoided bankruptcy and said “we got a new lease on life.” Gardena went from having “junk bond ratings to a financial score on of AA-Stable.”
His political mentor is former Gardena Mayor and Councilmember Mas Fuki, whom Tanaka called a “legend in the Japanese-American community.”
Fuki, who was also a longtime aide to former Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn called Tanaka on the phone “out of the blue one day” and told him
“Gardena is in trouble, and we need your help.”
“It was like getting a call from God, so to speak. When Mas calls and tells you to help, you do exactly as he says,” Tanaka said.
Gardena, like most cities in the South Los Angeles/South Bay area had suffered a long period of what Tanaka called “urban decay compounded with out of control crime and gangs.”
He said he is a “huge advocate and vocal supporter” of the Gardena Police Department that has around 90 sworn officers. Tanaka, who worked at the time as a Lieutenant with the much larger Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, says that he has “never pushed to have the Sheriff’s to come into Gardena as its law enforcement agency.”
“The Gardena Police Department is amazing and does an incredible job in protecting our entire community,” he said. Tanaka also pointed to statistics from different government agencies that “prove Gardena is one of the safest cities in the entire South Bay.”
“This campaign is about creating a new environment within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” Tanaka said.
During his first campaign address Tanaka said, “Our county Sheriff’s Department is in desperate need of new leadership.” said Tanaka.
“As one of the most complex police agencies in the country, our Sheriff’s department’s responsibilities to the community require a leader that is engaged, trustworthy and dedicated to the future of the department. It is crucial, now more than ever, that our department’s leaders are unified in their goals to maintain safety within our jails, decrease crime in our communities and preserve a fiscally transparent department budget,” he said.
“When I am elected Sheriff, I will ensure our employees have leadership that is clear, consistent and sensible.”
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