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Jim Duffy vividly remembers Saturdays with his dad, the late Sheriff John Duffy, a bigger-than-life character who famously called county supervisors “her royal highness” and “felony dumb,” and who once angrily told reporters at a press conference they were lucky the guns on display were not loaded.
The divorced five-term sheriff would pick up his preteen son for weekend visits and instead of bonding at the zoo or Sea World, they’d go to the shooting range for target practice, or to satellite stations or headquarters or even accident scenes. The department became the child’s second family, and his adventures with dad made a lasting impression.
So that his father didn’t overshadow him, and so he could prove himself, “Jimmy” Duffy became a police officer at age 18 in the Calipatria Police Department, about 150 miles east of San Diego. He moved over to the Carlsbad Police Department and got into a shootout in the early 1980s. His father, about to take off from Lindbergh Field to Sacramento for sheriff-related business, somehow delayed the plane on the tarmac until he knew his son was all right.
Although the two were close, the younger Duffy eventually applied to his father’s Sheriff’s Department in 1986 without telling him.
Now, 24 years after he was sworn in by his father as a deputy, Jim Duffy is following his dream and his father’s footsteps by running for sheriff. He’s facing an uphill battle, just as his father did more than three decades ago.
Duffy is the candidate with the legacy to contend with: He is constantly being compared to his father. He’s praised for having his father’s best qualities: A devotion to deputies, a passion for the department and a hands-on management style. He’s criticized for having at least one of his father’s less admirable traits: He can be a controlling micromanager.
And there’s disagreement over whether the comparison even matters, 17 years after the elder Duffy left office.
When Jim Duffy joined the Sheriff’s Department, his father pinned on him the same badge John Duffy had worn as a young deputy in the 1950s and 60s, Badge No. 77. The sheriff and his son overlapped for about five years but rarely interacted professionally.
After a tumultuous but accomplished career spanning almost four decades, Sheriff Duffy retired in 1991 at age 61, and less than two years later suffered a massive heart attack in a hotel in El Salvador, where he was helping locals establish a civilian police force. He had just emerged from the pool, where he’d floated around with an El Cajon police buddy, bragging about his youngest son Jim’s success as a father and deputy.
At the San Diego funeral, Jim Duffy was presented with his father’s sheriff badge, fastened to a pillow. “When I’m elected, that’s the badge I will be wearing,” Duffy said recently, fondly recalling a tenderhearted father who was generous with hugs and smiles — one the public wouldn’t recognize.
The father and son never discussed the possibility that Jim Duffy might someday run for sheriff. But Duffy said he sometimes feels he’s living his father’s life. Like his father, he is divorced. The sheriff hopeful is raising his 5-year-old son on his own — after already raising two older children as a single dad.
Both father and son were presidents of the deputies’ association. And when running for sheriff, both men were considered underdogs, supported by the rank-and-file while pitted against handpicked successors supported by the elite downtown establishment. John Duffy had only reached the rank of captain when he was elected sheriff and was just 41 years old; his son has faced similar criticism because he has only made it to lieutenant, a rank below captain.
John Duffy, who used green pens and had all the department’s patrol cars painted green and white because green was his favorite color, has been called everything from bully to genius.
During his many years as sheriff, he was a great motivator and inspired loyalty in his troops because he always supported them, some retired sheriff’s officials said. At the same time, some considered him an acerbic, tough-talking and self-important micromanager.
“He wasn’t a wuss about anything. He wasn’t authoritarian, but he certainly had a vision as to where he was going to go, and hopefully your vision was his, otherwise tough shit,” said Myron Klippert, a retired assistant sheriff in the Duffy and Bill Kolender eras.
Sheriff Duffy wasn’t known for diplomacy. At one point he made news when he said then-county Supervisor Jim Bates was “felony dumb,” and when he referred to then-Supervisor Susan Golding as “her royal highness.” Back then, the relationship between the sheriff and the board, which controls the sheriff’s budget, was more acrimonious.
Bates must have gotten over the elder Duffy’s insult — he’s endorsed Jim Duffy for sheriff.
Sheriff Duffy was a pioneer of community policing — the practice of getting deputies out of patrol cars and into neighborhoods to team up with residents on crime prevention and problem solving. Duffy called it “team policing” back then. He also opened up satellite offices in rural parts of the county.
The younger Duffy doesn’t want to make the cruisers green again, but he does want to put the emphasis back on community policing like his father did.
Also like his father, the younger Duffy has a track record of working for deputies. As president of the deputies union, Duffy initiated legal action that retained off-duty law enforcers’ right to carry concealed weapons on the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
As chief of staff to county Supervisor Ron Roberts, a job he held while on leave from the Sheriff’s Department, Duffy led the effort to fund and create a memorial for officers and deputies countywide who died in the line of duty. The memorial features the names of 82 people dating back to 1864, etched in a glass wall at the bay-front County Administration Center.
Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said law enforcement is backing Duffy not because he is a former union president, but because he is grounded in local law enforcement.
“Duffy knows what it likes to be a patrol cop, to be out on the streets at one in the morning when it’s pouring rain and something is happening,” Marvel said. “He worked his way up through the chain of command versus somebody coming through the FBI.”
Duffy seems torn between running on the strength of his father’s name and legacy, and his own. The elder Duffy’s final years in office were more troubled, and embracing his dad as the ideal sheriff is a double-edged sword.
Sheriff Duffy didn’t censor himself with county supervisors or the news media, which mercilessly reported his exploits — in particular the time he angrily denounced The Los Angeles Times for investigating whether taxpayers funded his home security system.
After a judge rejected his efforts to keep the Times from publishing a story about his home security measures, Duffy told reporters at a news conference they were lucky the guns were unloaded because he didn’t want to be “tempted here” to use them.
One of Jim Duffy’s biggest supporters, county Supervisor Ron Roberts, said he and Duffy have had heart-to-heart conversations about diplomacy and cooperation.
“The thing that’s impressed me is, Jim has a tremendous amount of pride in, and a tremendous amount of loyalty to, his dad’s memory,” Roberts said. However, “Jim’s a very different person from his dad. His dad obviously inspired him to want to be sheriff, but I think the relationship I would expect Jim to have with the board would be very different.”
Roberts said he’s known for years that it was Duffy’s dream and plan to emulate his father and run for sheriff, so he offered Duffy a job as his chief of staff so Duffy could learn how the county functions from a different perspective. “I said, if you’re going to be sheriff let’s prepare you like nobody’s ever been prepared, let’s make you the best sheriff ever.”
There are others who see the contrast as a negative.
“John Duffy was a good sheriff,” said retired Sheriff Bill Kolender, who has endorsed Gore. “He was there for a long time. He did have some problems at the end. But Jim Duffy has none of the leadership qualities of his dad.”
John Duffy’s undersheriff, Jack Drown, a Gore supporter, wondered whether John Duffy’s name would resonate with voters, since it’s been 17 years since John Duffy was sheriff.
“There’s no birthright to the office of sheriff,” Drown said. “You don’t cast a vote simply because Jim Duffy was John Duffy’s son. And you shouldn’t vote against him for that reason either.”
Duffy’s already got the diplomacy thing down: He said his own style combines the best of sheriffs Duffy and Kolender.
“Two different kinds of people, two very successful leaders,” Duffy said. “You might have seen John Duffy always picking a fight with the Board of Supervisors, and Bill Kolender patting them on the back and shaking their hands all the time.
“I would be a happy medium. A sheriff that sticks up for the department, and ensures the safety of the community.”
Correction: The original version of this story contained the incorrect year in which Jim Duffy joined the Sheriff’s Department. We regret the error.