It’s early days in the race for L.A. County sheriff, but the mud is already flying

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at a lectern with arms outstretched
The reelection campaign of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, shown in May, has zeroed in on one challenger in particular: LAX Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

With the election still seven months away, the race for Los Angeles County sheriff is already getting ugly — and a little weird.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva is facing a crowded field of challengers, but his campaign has zeroed in lately on one in particular: LAX Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo.

Last week, Villanueva’s campaign attacked Rhambo for switching his party registration from Republican to Democrat in a text to some L.A. County Democratic Party members.


And on Wednesday, another text message sent by Villanueva’s campaign manager, Javier Gonzalez, to a larger number of Democratic Party members suggested that Rhambo, who retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2014, had been a member of a deputy “gang” while at the department. The text included a photo of Rhambo from the 1980s that has been circulating among Villanueva supporters and others since Rhambo announced he was running to unseat the sheriff. In it, he is posing with other deputies and making a hand gesture that Gonzalez said was a gang sign.

“Our opponent Cecil Rhambo likes to talk a big game about ‘reforming’ the department and getting rid of alleged gangs. He seems to know a lot about these so-called gangs and cliques,” Gonzalez wrote. “Could it be that he was in one himself?”

For decades the Sheriff’s Department has been dogged by allegations that gang-like groups of deputies have taken root in several stations, running roughshod over commanders and, in some cases, celebrating brutal tactics and shootings by members. Villanueva has been criticized for downplaying the problem and not doing enough to confront it.

Both Villanueva and Rhambo are seeking the L.A. County Democratic Party’s endorsement.

In response to the insinuation, Rhambo’s campaign provided The Times with a video of him shirtless to show that on his torso, back or arms he has none of the tattoos that deputies often get when they are accepted into one of the the gang-like groups. The video does show two tattoos: his daughter’s name in Chinese characters on his arm and a dragon on his back that he said he got to build his credibility among drug dealers and buyers when he was undercover in a narcotics unit.

In July, when Spectrum reporter Kate Cagle asked Rhambo about the widely circulated claim he belonged to a deputy group, he bared his ankles and shins to show there was no ink.

“The fact that I have to prove I don’t have tattoos on my upper body, disrobe, quite frankly is a little humiliating,” Rhambo told The Times on Thursday. “They’re just throwing things out there to muddy the waters ... He’s trying to minimize and neutralize me as best he can.”


Villanueva, who routinely refuses to answer questions from The Times, did not respond Thursday to a request for comment. Gonzalez, who controls the Twitter handle @CecilRhambo and uses it to parody the candidate, said Rhambo is trying to “ride the social justice wave” to election, referring to the support Rhambo has voiced for reforms in policing.

“Rhambo is not our opponent, our opponent is the woke left,” Gonzalez said. “He’s just the puppet that they’ve put forward.”

Villanueva, who was elected on a swell of support from Democratic voters who believed him to be a progressive reformer, has pivoted sharply to the right over the last year to seek reelection as a more conservative law-and-order candidate. He now regularly bashes the “woke left” and makes regular appearances on Fox News to, among other things, promote his aggressive posture on homelessness. Villanueva also has trumpeted his push to dramatically increase the number of permits issued to allow people to carry concealed weapons and recently headlined an event held by the L.A. County Republican Party.

Rhambo said the photo sent out by Gonzalez was taken sometime before the 1984 Summer Olympics. A group of off-duty deputies had met up for drinks in an industrial area of the county and Rhambo’s commander asked him to go break up the gathering.

When he arrived, Rhambo recalled, the group decided to take a photo. They piled on a car and made hand gestures spelling out “CS,” which Rhambo said stood for the Carson sheriff’s station where he and others were assigned.

Paul Tanaka, the disgraced former undersheriff who was convicted on federal charges of spearheading a plan to interfere with an FBI investigation into inmate abuse by deputies in county jails, is in the photo. Rhambo said he cannot recall the names of everyone in the photo.

Rhambo downplayed his relationship with Tanaka and said he has not spoken with him since before he was sentenced to serve five years in federal prison. Records show Tanaka was released in April.

In the past, Villanueva has denied that “gangs” exist within the department and has minimized the issue, saying problems associated with the groups are instead often the result of drunken deputies getting into fights.

But the sheriff has also taken credit for addressing the problem with a policy that prohibits deputies from joining groups that promote behavior that violates the rights of others. Villanueva has said he had broken up the Banditos, a group of deputies assigned to the department’s East L.A. station, with disciplinary actions and by reassigning alleged members to other stations — a claim some sheriff’s officials and others dispute.

Rhambo said he would take a tougher stance. “I’ve made my position on deputy gangs clear,” Rhambo wrote in a text message to L.A. County Democratic Party delegates. “I will ban them, and fire and decertify anybody who is a member of a Sheriff’s gang.”

Others running for L.A. County sheriff are Matt Rodriguez, who retired from the department as a captain and more recently was the interim police chief of the Santa Paula Police Department, and Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.