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In potential major upset, Alex Villanueva holds slim lead over L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell

In potential major upset, Alex Villanueva holds slim lead over L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell
Retired Sheriff's Lt. Alex Villanueva, left, debates L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell at a July event hosted by the Professional Peace Officers Assn. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In what could be a stunning upset in the race to be Los Angeles County sheriff, challenger Alex Villanueva took a narrow lead over Sheriff Jim McDonnell early Wednesday.

With 100% of precincts reporting, Villanueva, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant, was ahead by 4,927 votes, but provisional and late mail ballots still have to be counted.

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Heading into the election to run one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies, McDonnell and Villanueva had been expected to be locked in a tight race.

Sheriffs in Los Angeles County can typically count on being easily reelected in the primary, but Villanueva disrupted that pattern when he became one of only four challengers in the last century to push a sitting sheriff into a runoff.

Political experts said this year’s competitive race could signify a new era for the Sheriff’s Department in which incumbents must fight to keep their jobs. The agency is still seeking to redefine itself after a jail abuse scandal unfolded under former Sheriff Lee Baca, a four-term leader accused of losing focus on his department. Baca is currently appealing his conviction last year for obstructing an FBI investigation and lying to investigators.

Indeed, the question of how to reform one of the nation’s largest policing organizations was a source of debate between McDonnell and Villanueva.

McDonnell, 59, campaigned on a promise to continue the improvements he’s made, like reducing serious jail violence and enhancing mental health care behind bars.

The former Long Beach Police Chief and longtime Los Angeles Police Department official touted his support for the nearly 2-year-old Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and drew headlines when he tried to give prosecutors a “Brady List” of about 300 deputies with histories of misconduct.

Villanueva, 55, argued the Sheriff’s Department hadn’t done enough to distance itself from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is allowed to use office space inside one of the county jails.

Villanueva, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served three decades in the Sheriff’s Department, said he would kick ICE agents out of the lockup, though he added his deputies would march inmates out of jail into ICE custody.

McDonnell remained the stronger fundraiser, drawing about $1.2 million from individual donors, most densely in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Beverly Hills. He was supported by at least $954,000 in additional dollars from an independent committee funded by business executives and a union representing sergeants, lieutenants and other Sheriff’s Department employees.

Villanueva raised $156,000 from people most concentrated in eastern parts of the county near La Habra Heights, where he lives, but he was backed by an additional $1.4 million in outside money from labor groups including the rank-and-file deputy union.

The Sheriff’s Department has faced new questions in recent months. A Times investigation found that a team of deputies targeted thousands of innocent Latino drivers on the 5 Freeway in drug searches, a practice now under review. There also have been concerns about why the department has not done more to curb deputies wearing matching tattoos that critics say are indications of secret cliques within the agency.

In other county races, incumbent Jeffrey Prang was expected to be handily reelected to the post of assessor. The assessor’s office is responsible for finding all taxable property in the county and appraising its value.

Prang was first elected in 2014 to succeed John Noguez, who had previously been arrested and charged with accepting bribes for lowering property owners’ assessments. After this year’s primary, Prang was forced into a runoff with John Loew, a longtime appraiser who earned 23.6% of the vote in June.

Voters were also deciding whether to approve a parcel tax that would raise money for stormwater capture and cleanup.

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Measure W, a 2.5-cent tax per square foot of “impermeable area” on a property, would raise money for projects that improve water quality and that may also contribute to water supply and community benefits like parks.

The ballot measure was expected to be close, with a two-thirds majority of votes needed to pass.

If approved, Measure W will become the fourth major countywide tax to be green-lighted by voters in the last two years, in addition to sales and parcel taxes intended to raise money to improve transportation infrastructure, expand neighborhood parks and combat homelessness.

7:30 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the Sheriff’s Department coming under fire in recent months.

Nov. 7, 6:05 a.m.: This article was updated with Villanueva leading McDonnell.

Nov. 6, 9:25 p.m.: This article was updated with early returns.

This article was originally published at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6.

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