Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s bid for re-election will be rejected in November after initial polls showed he had a healthy lead over retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.
With nearly 29% of the expected votes counted, the Associated Press predicted that Villanueva would fail the 50%-plus-one threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
Trailing about 10 percentage points to Villanueva, Luna had not yet secured second place as early as Wednesday, leaving open the possibility that another challenger could overtake him, according to the AP.
But the other candidates were way behind. Lt. Sheriff’s Eric Strong came in third, with about half of Luna’s votes, and Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, a distant fourth.
About 200 people gathered at an East LA restaurant Tuesday night for Villanueva’s election observation party. A few wore cowboy hats and more wore green buttons with Villanueva’s image and a campaign slogan. The mood turned a bit gloomy when the first results came in.
Villanueva took the stage for the first time just before 10pm and walked into Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”.
He began by pointing out that progressive San Francisco prosecutor Chesa Boudin had been impeached in a recall election. “George Gascón, you’re next!” he said to rousing applause from the crowd, referring to the Los Angeles District Attorney.
He said of his own race: “I know we are at the top. And we expect to stay at the top.”
He added: “We can end all of this tonight; we’ll know soon enough. But you know what, even if it goes a long way, I’m built for endurance.”
Meanwhile, Luna’s house in Long Beach had an air of subdued excitement. Friends, family and campaign workers let out a sigh of excitement and a sigh of relief.
“I feel like people want change, they want good policing,” Luna said in the dining room. “I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m humbled by the support I’m getting right now.”
Steve James, a former Long Beach Police Lieutenant who worked under Luna for years and attended the rally Tuesday night, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Luna’s early appearance.
“I expected to see him second. I didn’t expect to see him so close to Villanueva in this stage, and I didn’t expect to see him this far ahead of third,” said James.
“Looks like he’ll be busy until November.”
Villanueva has had a tumultuous first term, marked by a series of controversies and a controversial, dysfunctional relationship with the province’s powerful Board of Trustees, which controls its budget. And he has spent his four years in office sparring with the watchdogs appointed to keep him and the department in check, making repeated subpoenas for him to answer questions under oath on a range of issues.
Much of the criticism has centered on what opponents say is Villanueva’s lackluster response to gang-like groups of deputies accused of glorifying aggressive policing and celebrating shootings. He also came under fire for, among other things, trying to cover up the fact that officers shared graphic photos of the site where Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed.
The upheaval followed a highly unlikely victory in 2018, when the retired sheriff’s lieutenant rose from relative obscurity to defeat the incumbent. He was the first challenger to evict a sitting LA County sheriff in more than a century.
To win, Villanueva presented himself to Democratic voters as a progressive reformer and convinced many of his liberal credentials by promising to limit the department’s cooperation in provincial prisons with federal immigration authorities.
On that point, he persevered after taking office, removing immigration and customs enforcement officers from LA County jails and later banning warrantless transfers to ICE. The move brought the department into compliance with several court rulings that found many such transfers unconstitutional.
But otherwise, Villanueva made an ever-harder turn for the right to transform herself into a conservative law-and-order sheriff. During his campaign and his frequent appearances on Fox News, he has railed against the policies of the “awakened left” that he blames for the county’s homeless crisis and the soaring rate of murders and other crimes. An important initiative of his was to drastically increase the number of permits issued to allow people to carry concealed weapons.
And he took advantage of voters’ frustration and anger at homelessness, portraying himself as the only elected official with the will and know-how to do something about the problem. In a well-choreographed photo, he took to the Venice Beach boardwalk last June to announce that he would be clearing out the massive homeless camp there. While his claim was largely exaggerated, the move impressed voters.
Villanueva earned the backing of the Ordinary Deputies, largely through his tough refusal to enforce the province’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The support helped him secure the approval of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, but, unlike in 2018, when it spent at least $1.3 million to support him, the union has not contributed yet this time.
While all the controversies under Villanueva’s watch faced him with a crowded field of challengers, the province’s Democratic Party failed to rally behind one candidate, forcing them to compete among themselves for approvals and campaign funds.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks and a longtime national Democratic donor, was a factor in the race. He has poured half a million dollars into a commission that supports Luna and has said Villanueva has “caused dysfunction and chaos that has endangered our public safety,” according to a fundraising appeal for Luna he launched late last year. .
Luna became the Long Beach agency’s first Latino chief when he took over from Jim McDonnell, who was elected sheriff in 2014 and impeached by Villanueva. Growing up in East LA, Luna joined the Long Beach power at age 18, holding every rank there during his 36-year career.
The Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Assn., which represents sergeants, lieutenants and other sheriffs, has spent nearly $200,000 supporting Eli Vera, a retired sheriff commander who was once one of Villanueva’s closest advisers.
“I’m not happy with Villanueva,” said Abbey Jaeger, a West LA resident who delivered her ballot to the Felicia Mahood Multipurpose Center on Tuesday. “I’d rather give someone else a chance than move on with him.”
The 29-year-old said she spent three hours researching and filling out her ballot. As sheriff, she voted for Luna because she seemed trustworthy to him.
Several voters told The Times they skipped the sheriff’s race altogether because they felt they weren’t informed enough about the candidates.
Casandra Del Carmen, 46, of West LA said she was on the retired Sheriff’s Capt. Matt Rodriguez had voted because he’s Latino and she’d heard good things about him, but said she didn’t have time to research each candidate thoroughly.
Mitzie Parker, who lives near the LA-Marina del Rey border, said she voted for Villanueva because he sent delegates to a homeless camp in her neighborhood that was littered with garbage.
“Nobody would do anything,” she said, referring to calls to the city council and the LAPD that were turned down. She said she felt like she was locked up in her house because she was afraid to leave.
But the sheriff’s efforts to clear up homelessness in Venice without coordinating with the Los Angeles Police Department, which patrol the area, is what turned Jacquelyn Wilcoxen, 64, away.
“It was very disruptive, very macho — that’s how he comes across,” Wilcoxen said.
Wilcoxen, who voted for Villanueva in 2018 but was disappointed, said she had filled out her ballot for Luna this time.