Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva found himself in a tight reelection fight Tuesday, with early poll results showing him holding a slim lead over retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.
With a fraction of votes tallied, a few percentage points separated the two men, who were well below the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff in November.
Other candidates were considerably further behind. Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Strong was in third and Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo was a distant fourth.
About 200 people had gathered at an East LA restaurant Tuesday night for Villanueva’s election watch party. A few wore cowboy hats, and more wore green buttons with Villanueva’s picture and a campaign slogan. The mood turned slightly somber as the first results rolled in.
At Luna’s home in Long Beach, meanwhile, there was an air of tempered excitement. Friends, family and campaign workers let out yelps of enthusiasm and breathed sighs of relief.
“I feel that people want change, they want good policing,” Luna said in the dining room. “I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m humbled by the support that I’m getting at this point.”
Steve James, a former Long Beach police lieutenant who worked for years under Luna and was at the gathering Tuesday night, said he’s “pleasantly surprised” by Luna’s early showing.
“I expected to see him in second. I didn’t expect to see him this close to Villanueva at this stage, and I didn’t expect to see him this far ahead of third,” James said.
“Looks like he’s going to be busy through November.”
Villanueva has had a tumultuous first term, marked by a string of controversies and a contentious, dysfunctional relationship with the county’s powerful Board of Supervisors, which controls his budget. And he has sparred throughout his four years in office with the watchdogs appointed to keep him and the department in check, rebuffing repeated subpoenas for him to answer questions under oath about a range of issues.
Much of the criticism focuses on what critics say is Villanueva’s lackluster response to ganglike groups of deputies who are accused of glorifying aggressive policing and celebrating on-duty shootings. He also came under fire for, among other things, trying to cover up the fact that deputies shared graphic photos of the site where Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed.
The upheaval followed a highly improbable win in 2018, when the retired sheriff’s lieutenant rose out of relative obscurity to defeat the incumbent. He was the first challenger to dislodge 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 county jails with federal immigration authorities.
On that issue, he followed through after taking office, removing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from LA County jails and later banning warrantless transfers to ICE altogether. The move put the department in line with several court rulings that found many such transfers unconstitutional.
But otherwise, Villanueva made an increasingly hard turn to the right to refashion himself as a conservative law-and-order sheriff. On the campaign trail and on his frequent appearances on Fox News, he has railed against the policies of the “woke left” that he blames for the county’s homeless crisis and sharp rise in homicides and other crimes. A major initiative of his has been to dramatically increase the number of permits issued to allow people to carry concealed guns.
And he deftly exploited voters’ frustration and anger over homelessness, portraying himself as the lone elected official with the will and know-how to do something about the problem. In a well-choreographed photo op, he took to the Venice Beach boardwalk in June of last year to announce he would clean up the huge homeless encampment there. While his claim was largely exaggerated, the move left an impression on voters.
Villanueva earned the support of the rank-and-file deputies, largely through his hardline refusal to enforce the county’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The backing helped him secure the endorsement of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, but, unlike in 2018 when he spent at least $1.3 million supporting him, this time the union has not yet contributed.
While all the controversies under Villanueva’s watch left him facing a crowded field of challengers, the county’s Democratic Party failed to rally behind one candidate, leaving them to battle among themselves for endorsements and campaign funds.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, a co-founder of DreamWorks and longtime national Democratic donor, has been a factor in the race. He has poured a half-million dollars into a committee supporting Luna and has said Villanueva “has created dysfunction and chaos which has put our public safety at risk,” according to a fundraising appeal for Luna he sent late last year.
Luna became the first Latino chief of the Long Beach agency when he took over from Jim McDonnell, who was elected sheriff in 2014 and unseated by Villanueva. Luna, who grew up in East LA, joined the Long Beach force at 18 and, during his 36-year career there, held every rank.
The Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Assn., which represents sergeants, lieutenants and other sheriff’s supervisors, has spent nearly $200,000 supporting Eli Vera, a retired sheriff’s commander who was once one of Villanueva’s close advisors.
“I haven’t been thrilled with Villanueva,” said Abbey Jaeger, a West LA resident who dropped off her ballot at the Felicia Mahood Multipurpose Center on Tuesday. “I’d rather give someone else a shot than continue with him.”
The 29-year-old said she spent three hours researching and filling out her nerd. For sheriff, she voted for Luna, saying he seemed trustworthy.
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 voted for retired Sheriff’s Capt. Matt Rodriguez because he’s Latino and she had heard good things about him, but said she didn’t have time to research each candidate deeply.
Mitzie Parker, who lives near the border of LA and Marina del Rey, said she voted for Villanueva because he sent deputies to a homeless encampment in her neighborhood that was littered with trash.
“Nobody would do a thing,” she said, referring to calls to the City Council and the LAPD that were rebuffed. She said she felt as though she was locked inside her home because she was afraid to leave.
But the sheriff’s efforts to clean up homelessness in Venice without coordinating with the Los Angeles Police Department, which patrols the area, is what turned off Jacquelyn Wilcoxen, 64.
“It was very disruptive, very kind of macho — that’s how he comes across,” Wilcoxen said.
Wilcoxen, who voted for Villanueva in 2018 but was disappointed, said she filled out her ballot for Luna this time around.