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In the race for sheriff, Jim Duffy thought he could count on the financial support of one key ally: The politically powerful Deputy Sheriffs Association, which enthusiastically endorsed its former president in August.

But the union that Duffy led for two years has done an about-face. The board, known to drop as much as $170,000 to win an election, voted last week to spend a paltry $3,000 on its own candidate.

That stunning vote left things looking pretty grim for the Duffy campaign, which had already fallen behind Sheriff Bill Gore in fundraising by a count of $60,000 to $225,000.

Then Duffy got a quick — and unprecedented — pick-me-up. The Peace Officers Research Association of California, an umbrella group for law enforcement associations, voted Monday to spend $25,000 on Duffy, for starters, said sources familiar with the situation.

Several more from San Diego County and elsewhere in the state are considering similar action.

It’s the latest turmoil in a race marked by political drama and even tragedy, starting with the early retirement of Sheriff Bill Kolender in July 2009, which triggered controversy over who would be appointed to finish the term — and gain an important advantage as the incumbent.

Few sheriff races are this competitive, since most sheriffs parlay incumbency into multiple four-year terms. Kolender, for instance, retired in the middle of his fourth term. But when the seat is up for grabs because of retirement, the race can get intense.

This race was interesting to begin with if only because of the backgrounds of the candidates:

  • Duffy is a 27-year law enforcement veteran and the son of the late Sheriff John Duffy, an acerbic and tough-talking character credited with modernizing the department during his five terms.
  • Gore, a 32-year FBI veteran with six years in the Sheriff’s Department, is aligned with the county’s powerbrokers but many of his own deputies consider him an outsider.
  • Jay LaSuer was second-in-command to controversial Sheriff Jim Roache and a 24-year department veteran, as well as a former La Mesa city councilman and ex-state assemblyman with an ultra-conservative base.

Add the unusual twists of the race and things get even more interesting.

The first battle in the sheriff’s race — some would say the most important — was fought in front of the Board of Supervisors, which had to appoint a replacement to finish the final 18 months of Kolender’s term. Gore walked away from that meeting in June 2009 with the sheriff’s badge, and political consultants say he also walked away with a big advantage as incumbent.

He’s the one who gets to put “sheriff” by his name on the ballot. But he also has to add “appointed.”

Duffy needed the extra dough from the Deputy Sheriffs Association to keep up with the sitting sheriff and his powerful band of establishment endorsers. And it looked like he was going to get it until pro-Gore supporters grabbed two seats on the DSA board in December, tilting the nine-member board to Gore.

Association President Ernie Carrillo, a Duffy backer, said he was disgusted by the decision to spend little to support its candidate.

“To build the reputation of the DSA in San Diego County was a long time in coming and we’ve just taken a major step backwards,” he said.

♦♦♦

After the battle for the supervisors’ appointment, the front lines of the fight then shifted to fundraising and endorsements.

Duffy got every major law enforcement union.

Gore got the establishment — the ultra-popular Kolender and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis as well as San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. But Gore wasn’t endorsed by his own deputies.

LaSuer is supported by the controversial Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who fights with immigrant advocates and the Justice Department and makes inmates wear pink underwear.

All three candidates are Republicans. Duffy, with his labor background, is expected to snag the Democratic vote; Gore to appeal more to moderates, and LaSuer to the far right.

The ballot recently dealt Duffy another blow; the registrar of voters said he couldn’t identify himself as a sheriff’s lieutenant because it wasn’t his most recent job. Duffy had taken a leave of absence to become chief of staff to Supervisor Ron Roberts, and then to run for office.

On the money front, Duffy isn’t the only one having trouble reaching financial goals.

Even though Gore has raised the most money — $225,000 — he has about $46,000 in unpaid debt, which after other spending brings his cash levels down to about $66,000. That’s not far off Duffy’s total of $25,000 cash, plus at least $28,000 in independent expenditures. LaSuer’s campaign, which has raised $42,356, is now $2,276 in the hole, according to March 17 campaign disclosure statements.

Tom Shepard, Gore’s campaign consultant, said even Gore will not reach his target, and fundraising levels in this race are significantly lower than comparable races largely due to the economy.

“This isn’t a race that is going to be decided by slick campaigning” because nobody can afford it, Shepard said. “The sad reality is that even with the fundraising that Gore has, none of the candidates are going to have budgets that are adequate to be able to campaign countywide.”

Gore hadn’t drawn a lot of attention to himself, despite the fact that he is running for office for the first time. But that all changed one terrible week when Poway High student Chelsea King went missing.

While San Diego residents clamored for news, Sheriff Gore appeared in uniform alongside the girl’s traumatized parents on national and local news programs, at the site of the search and at numerous press conferences.

With a sorrowful yet take-charge tone Gore announced the swift arrest of a suspected killer, and two days later, on March 2, he made the heartbreaking disclosure that Chelsea’s body had been found in a shallow grave beside Lake Hodges.

The tragic loss that galvanized a local community and even tugged heartstrings of a national audience has significantly elevated Gore’s profile leading up to a competitive June primary.

“From a very pragmatic perspective, I do think that the exposure that he got enabled the public countywide, in a way we would never be able to afford in the campaign, to see the leadership and competence that are a central part of our message,” Shepard said.

Just how much Gore’s new high profile will influence voters is anyone’s guess, particularly a few months before the primary. That’s an eternity in election time, and it could all be a distant memory by then.

Please contact Kelly Thornton directly at kellythornton7407@yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kellymthornton.

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