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L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, locked in reelection battle, picks up employee union endorsement

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, locked in reelection battle, picks up employee union endorsement
L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell at a debate with retired Sheriff's Lt. Alex Villanueva held by the Professional Peace Officers Assn. in Los Angeles on July 23. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who is facing a historic runoff challenge, has been endorsed by a union representing about 6,000 of his employees.

The Professional Peace Officers Assn., composed of sergeants and lieutenants as well as civilian custody assistants and crime analysts, said Thursday that it chose McDonnell in part for his experience in high-level law enforcement positions.

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The announcement by PPOA underscores a divide among Sheriff’s Department employees over who they want to be their next leader. The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, a union of rank-and-file deputies, endorsed challenger Alex Villanueva last month, saying the retired lieutenant could better relate to deputies.

Low morale has been a recurring complaint by the unions and by members of the department, which has struggled to fill hundreds of empty spots in its 9,400-officer force. In 2017, PPOA issued a report card for the department, giving it a D+ on morale.

PPOA’s internal poll of its members, which includes some retirees, also reflected a split. Of 7,389 ballots mailed, 394 members chose McDonnell, 365 voted for Villanueva, and 115 selected neither candidate, according to numbers provided by the union.

Lt. Brian Moriguchi, the president of PPOA, said despite morale problems brought on by employees being forced to work overtime, the choice by the group’s 22-member endorsement committee hinged on the candidates’ qualifications.

“Alex’s very limited experience as a low-level manager played heavy in our decision in the endorsement,” Moriguchi said. “Choosing him would be like asking a drive-through teller at a fast-food restaurant to be the CEO of the company.”

Villanueva, 55, defended his experience as a watch commander at the Sheriff’s Department, saying it’s one of the most important roles in the agency. He retired in February after serving in the department for three decades, including years as a street cop in East Los Angeles.

Despite being outspent 16 to 1 by McDonnell, Villanueva scored 33% of the vote in the June 5 primary, with McDonnell falling shy of a majority with 48% of votes. The result pushed the incumbent sheriff into a runoff — an event that’s happened in the county only four times in the last century.

The son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish American mother, Villanueva, a Democrat, drew most of his support from heavily Latino areas such as Southeast Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and Pomona, according to a Times analysis of votes by precinct. He’s backed by the county’s Democratic Party and labor groups.

McDonnell, a former Long Beach police chief who rose to high ranks within the LAPD, says he’s not affiliated with a political party, though he’s been a registered Republican in the past. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, County Supervisor Hilda Solis and the California Peace Officers Assn. have endorsed his candidacy.

McDonnell, 59, said in a statement he was honored by PPOA’s endorsement.

“I look forward to continuing our work together on the progress well underway at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

Villanueva is scheduled to appear at a candidate forum held by the ACLU of Southern California on Saturday. McDonnell said Thursday he would not attend.

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