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‘Running against the woke left’: Can Sheriff Villanueva’s shift to the right work in L.A.?

Alex Villanueva listens as a person speaks to him on the Venice boardwalk
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva talks with media, homeless advocates and local residents in Venice on June 7.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

For a sheriff who swept into office by convincing liberal, progressive voters he was their candidate, Alex Villanueva is making strange moves these days.

In the year since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the left-leaning elected officials who dominate politics in Los Angeles and other large U.S. cities have been scrambling to assuage demands for meaningful changes to policing.

Not Villanueva.

Instead, he has gone to war with the liberal forces that played a major hand in electing him.

Villanueva has appeared on Fox News to dismiss the notion of widespread police brutality, and in regular social media broadcasts, he has taken on a Trump-like demeanor, calling his critics trolls and out-of-touch elites. His news conferences have featured conservative politicians and personalities. He’s reveled in publicly rebuking local elected Democrats, including the mayor of Los Angeles, for what he sees as their inept handling of the city’s homelessness crisis, and he eagerly joined the campaign to kick the county’s ultra-progressive district attorney out of office.

And, in a move that is more NRA than ACLU, Villanueva has made it a mission to dramatically increase the number of people in Los Angeles County permitted to carry concealed guns.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva waded into the morass of homelessness in Los Angeles this week by deploying deputies to the Venice boardwalk, a tinderbox in the city’s struggle to deal with the mounting crisis.

It all has left the county’s Democratic Party machine, which helped put Villanueva in office, awash in feelings of betrayal and buyer’s remorse that culminated last month with a demand that the sheriff resign. And, as a reelection bid looms, Villanueva’s jag to the right has people puzzling over whether the maneuvers are part of a deliberate plan to win over a new base of voters or just the undisciplined scattershot of a man without a vision.

Villanueva’s camp would have you believe it knows what it’s doing.

“We’re running against the woke left, and we’re going to win,” said Javier Gonzalez, a campaign consultant for Villanueva. “It’s going to be a revolt of the regular people who want things done.”

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Villanueva did not respond to an interview request for this story.

With little reliable, publicly available polling, it is impossible to know with any certainty how most voters in L.A. County feel about Villanueva’s job performance since he took office at the end of 2018 and which issues are likely to sway them when the sheriff is on the ballot again in 2022.

A UCLA poll in March that asked respondents about Villanueva found that his favorability worsened in the last year as more people formed opinions about him. It found that 35% had a favorable impression of him, while 31% had an unfavorable impression. The rest had no opinion or hadn’t heard of him. The same poll in March of last year found 31% had a favorable impression of him, while 22% had an unfavorable impression. Nearly half had no opinion or hadn’t heard of him.

But as homicides and other crimes in the county have continued to climb along with some communities’ frustration over homeless encampments, Villanueva appears to be banking on the idea that voters, regardless of party allegiance, will be looking for a tough, no-nonsense sheriff. In recent public comments, Villanueva cited a USC survey that found 10% of Angelenos plan to leave L.A. County in the next year.

“He has tried to change the chemistry of his reelection by kind of adopting a sort of law-and-order posture that may get a little traction in L.A. County this coming year,” said Raphe Sonenshein, head of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “He’s hoping that choice will be more attractive at a time when people are concerned about a lot of issues that are really intractable.”

Villanueva’s current priorities and attitude mark a departure from how he portrayed himself three years ago, when he was campaigning for sheriff as a relatively unknown, long-shot candidate. A veteran of the department who spent much of his career as a rank-and-file deputy, Villanueva aggressively courted liberal voters by playing up a claim that he would be the first Democratic sheriff in the county in 138 years.

He promised to ban federal immigration agents from working inside L.A. County jails and said he supported efforts to expand social services to immigrants in the country illegally — potent selling points to Democratic voters who had become frustrated with former President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. He attended LGBTQ events and told a “Feel the Bern” Democratic club he wanted to see an end to the state’s cash bail system that keeps poor defendants behind bars.

The people in the church wanted to know how the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department would improve the jails, give deputies more training and end all interactions with immigration agents.

The strategy helped Villanueva to build a powerful, if tenuous, coalition of support. The county’s Democratic Party and groups on its more liberal flank endorsed him, as did the more conservative union that represents the department’s deputies.

“He’s going to be our guy,” Mark Gonzalez, chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party, said at a campaign event a few weeks before the 2018 election.

After he pulled off an upset victory most had thought was impossible, Villanueva took some steps to make good on his promises. The honeymoon period, however, was short-lived.

He removed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from L.A. County jails but still allowed some inmates to be handed over to ICE custody through contractors for the federal agency. It wasn’t until the pandemic that he banned inmate transfers to ICE altogether, unless federal agents have a warrant.

Supporters grew increasingly disillusioned as Villanueva resisted calls for greater transparency in the department and pursued controversial hires, including his reinstatement of a campaign volunteer who was fired as a deputy over allegations of domestic abuse and stalking.

Nine months into his term, the Democratic Party called on Villanueva to “restore trust” in his department.

“I think what the sheriff has done is a little bit of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” said Jasmyne Cannick, a political consultant who supported Villanueva’s campaign. “He came to us basically saying everything that we wanted to hear to get our support, and then as soon as he was elected, he turned into a completely different person.”

Cannick said Villanueva vowed to her during his campaign to run a transparent department if he won and that her support for a ballot measure to give subpoena power to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission was unnecessary. The measure was approved by a landslide last year, and Villanueva has since resisted multiple subpoenas from the commission and the inspector general, triggering court battles.

“My best thinking is that he was not a progressive sheriff but he played one on television,” said Cynthia Hart, a member of two Democratic clubs that endorsed Villanueva in 2018. “He was never who we thought he was, is what I think now.”

The rift deepened last summer when sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a Black man, Dijon Kizzee, in South L.A. The killing came as Los Angeles and the rest of the country were roiled by massive protests over the murder of Floyd and other police killings, and instead of trying to ease tensions, the sheriff took a combative approach.

In 11 shootings, including Kizzee’s, the bicyclists — all male and Black or Latino — were killed.

He dismissed those protesting Kizzee’s shooting as out-of-town instigators and hosted a counter-event with conservative figures to bash them. Joe Collins, a Republican backed by Trump who tried to unseat U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), was there, and Elsa Aldeguer, an activist whose social media accounts are filled with photos from pro-Trump rallies, gave a speech decrying the Black Lives Matter group.

The schism between Villanueva and his onetime supporters crystallized at a meeting of the L.A. County Democratic Party last month in which more than 90% of the voting members in attendance demanded the sheriff’s resignation.

There’s “a feeling, a sense of, ‘Did we get a lemon?’” said Gonzalez, chair of the party in L.A. County.

Villanueva, who had fought hard for the party’s support during the election, didn’t show up to the virtual meeting to defend himself. But he refused to concede the idea that had got him elected: Hours before the vote, his reelection campaign sent out an email touting him as a progressive Democrat who had swept out of office a predecessor who was “deporting immigrants and racially profiling drivers.”

And in a live social media broadcast the next day, Villanueva dismissed the county Democrats as “very wealthy west side of town folks” who don’t represent the party or county residents. The Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that the party had been hijacked by a “radical far left agenda.”

The sheriff’s determined effort to push through a fivefold increase in the number of concealed weapon permits issued in the county has confounded onetime supporters.

Previous sheriffs issued few of the permits, which are meant primarily for people who face clear dangers to their safety. Saying those before him kept the bar to receive them too high, Villanueva says more people carrying concealed handguns will be an effective countermeasure to rising crime and efforts on the left to reduce police funding.

The L.A. County Democratic Party passed a resolution Tuesday calling on Sheriff Alex Villanueva to restore trust in his department. The party’s endorsement played a large role in his long-shot election victory.

“Because we have less cops on the street, more crooks, less consequences — you know, what could go wrong with that combination, right?” Villanueva said last month. “We’re recognizing that the threat to the residents is increasing. So we’re responding accordingly.”

On his online broadcasts, Villanueva often gives boastful updates on the progress he’s made on his plan to quintuple the number of concealed weapon permits his department issues.

“We have now issued more CCWs than the last three sheriffs combined,” he crowed in April, when the number of permits he had issued or was close to issuing stood at 920.

Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats, said Villanueva’s permit push “smacks of political calculus.”

“He sees that many of us who originally hoped for his public service as sheriff have now turned our efforts to removing him from office, and so it’s clear he’s casting about for a new base of support.”

Perhaps inevitably, Villanueva’s political shift has led to regular appearances on conservative media. On Laura Ingraham’s national Fox News show, he recently co-opted the phrase “the big lie,” which Democrats coined to describe Trump’s false claims that the presidential election had been rife with fraud. The actual “big lie,” Villanueva said, stemmed from the murder of Floyd.

“That somehow cops represent an existential threat to young Black men,” the sheriff said. “Nothing can be further from the truth.”

He recently used his time on another of Fox’s reliably conservative shows, “Fox & Friends,” to bash Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and other elected city officials over policies that he said have hamstrung the Los Angeles Police Department from policing public spaces, which he said has led the homelessness crisis to grow. He went to the well of Republican Party talking points for his barbs, saying that people on the boardwalk were there to enjoy the “free services” and that the Democratic elected officials “don’t want to offend anybody.”

“Sheriff, you’re the only thing keeping that city, that state, from spiraling into utter chaos,” one of the Fox hosts, Brian Kilmeade, told him.

In response to a question last month about a city plan to tackle homelessness, he said of his fellow elected officials: “Sometimes they just need to be taken to the shed and they need to be beat down so they start doing their job. I’m speaking hypothetically, obviously, not really. I know there’s some woke person saying, ‘Oh, my God, the sheriff is threatening violence.’ They are that dumb.”

On paper, the candidate who ran for sheriff in 2018 should have been a close ally of George Gascón, who was elected Los Angeles County district attorney late last year on promises to radically overhaul the criminal justice system. Like Villanueva, Gascón was opposed to cash bail and wanted to restrict local cooperation with immigration agents.

But as sheriff, Villanueva has made Gascón an enemy, constantly criticizing the district attorney over policies that the sheriff says neglect crime victims and are contributing to a rise in violent crime.

“Being a reformer or a progressive in 2018 vintage is not the same as 2020,” Villanueva said during a recent interview on a podcast hosted by an announcer for the Ultimate Fighting Championship league. “Something happened with the wine harvest, and it is an upside-down world right now.” He didn’t elaborate.

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In February, relatives of crime victims gathered downtown to launch a campaign to recall Gascón from office. Villanueva showed up in plainclothes and took the microphone to rail against Gascón’s decision not to seek sentencing enhancements that lengthen a criminal defendant’s time behind bars.

“We have a problem,” Villanueva told the group. “His name is George Gascón.”

Villanueva was one of the first to sign the recall petition.

So far, four people have filed paperwork to run against Villanueva, and others have signaled plans to do so. History says they’ll face an uphill challenge regardless of the sheriff’s political meanderings.

Villanueva was the first to dislodge a sitting L.A. County sheriff in more than a century; in the late 1990s, an incumbent nearly won reelection despite dying days before the vote.

“Whether Villanueva is vulnerable depends in huge measure on who runs against him,” said Jim Newton, a former Times journalist who is now a lecturer at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “Without a credible opponent, none of this really matters.”


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