Column: He fooled voters once. Can Sheriff Villanueva do it again?

A man in a law enforcement uniform speaks at a lectern.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, shown in 2021, is running for reelection. Most of the leading candidates for mayor won’t say whether they support him.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Four years ago, Los Angeles County’s progressive voters got mugged.

They met a candidate who called himself a reformer and welcomed him into their home, throwing down a red carpet.

But it was like inviting the popular new guy to your house party and then watching him set fire to the curtains, puke into the punch bowl and chuck furniture through the windows.

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is still lobbing grenades at his once-rabid supporters, acting more like a militia commando than a professional law enforcement executive.


So now that the so-called progressive has turned out to be the exact opposite, arrogantly presiding over a string of outrageous scandals in a department with a long history of corruption, I expected a different response Sunday at the mayoral debate when candidates were asked whether they endorsed Villanueva’s reelection.

Not a trick question, right? Along with his embarrassing record, Villanueva had poked city officials in the eye with a stick when he mounted up a posse and rode into Venice last summer, claiming to have answers to the city’s homelessness challenge. Nice stunt, but aren’t hundreds of encampments strewn across the sheriff’s county turf to this day?

Sheriff Villanueva announces criminal investigation of Times journalist who revealed an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of an inmate.

April 26, 2022

Only Karen Bass said, flat-out, that she would not back Villanueva. Rick Caruso, Joe Buscaino, Kevin de León and Mike Feuer wouldn’t commit.

With spines that mushy, how do they even stand up straight?

The question now is, will voters give Villanueva the boot in the coming election?

I don’t know, but let’s try another question:

How many of his eight challengers can you name?

Can you name even one?

Don’t feel bad if the answer is no, because in a crowded field, money and name recognition are hard to come by, giving the incumbent gasbag a big advantage. (By the way, in alphabetical order, the names are Karla Carranza, April Hood, Robert Luna, Cecil Rhambo, Matt Rodriguez, Britta Steinbrenner, Eric Strong and Eli Vera.)

It’s possible Villanueva will grab 50% of the primary vote next month and avoid a runoff, and the circus will be in town at least four more years. Unlike four years ago, when the L.A. County Democratic Party got fleeced and backed Villanueva, there is no endorsement from the group this time around.


Candidates running for L.A. County sheriff take the stage together, trading ideas and some insults.

Jan. 27, 2022

Mark Gonzalez, the party chair, said the group does not officially back a candidate who doesn’t win 60% support in its endorsement process, and none of the candidates hit the mark. Of the 188 votes cast, Rhambo (chief of Los Angeles Airport Police and a former officer in the Sheriff’s Department) led the field with 65, and Luna (chief of police in Long Beach) came in second with 59.

If Villanueva gets less than 50% in the primary, Gonzalez said, and runs against a Democrat in the general election this fall, the party is likely to make an endorsement.

After four years of watching a guy who thinks he’s Rambo, it might be fun to see him get ambushed by a guy named Rhambo.

“Sheriff Allex Villanueva is the Donald Trump of L.A. County,” Rhambo says in a campaign ad, adding that the incumbent has “eroded public trust” and “used fear to consolidate power,” making “us good cops look bad.”

I don’t know about that. Villanueva has, however, made one cop in particular look bad.

I can remember sitting in the audience at a county Board of Supervisors meeting in January 2019, thinking Villanueva might wise up and reverse his move reinstating a deputy fired for alleged physical assault and harassment of a female deputy. Instead, he doubled down, blathering on about a “truth and reconciliation” commission that would clean up the department.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, because Villanueva had by then pushed back against requirements for reporting minor uses of force, he wanted to bring back metal flashlights that had served in the past as clubs, and he had opposed former Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s attempts to give prosecutors a secret list of deputies disciplined for dishonesty and misconduct.


“None of us is so independent that we can do anything we damn well please,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl told Villanueva.

She might as well have been talking to a fire hydrant.

Villanueva has stayed the course, feuding with critics including my colleague Gustavo Arellano for calling him out, and recently attacking another colleague, Alene Tchekmedyian, for reporting on a department cover-up involving a deputy who was seen in a video kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed inmate.

So how could such a bully ever have looked attractive to lefty libs, and how did he pull off his victory?

McDonnell is partly to blame. His record of reform wasn’t perfect in four years as sheriff, but he’d made progress. And yet he barely showed up at campaign time and seemed to take his reelection for granted, says Jaime Regalado, former director of Cal State L.A.’s Pat Brown Institute.

“McDonnell didn’t help himself at all, and Villanueva ran what turned out to be a smart campaign,” said Regalado, with the candidate convincing voters he was someone other than his true self.


In the nonpartisan election, Villanueva called himself a Democrat while McDonnell, an independent, had ticked off the left by refusing to support a state sanctuary bill aimed at preventing federal officials from taking custody of immigrants in the country without authorization upon their release from custody.

“Villanueva is very charismatic, using that sort of charisma now in a very negative way, but he was progressive in our interviews,” said Damian Carroll, one of the party members who endorsed Villanueva and later felt conned.

Gonzalez said that, ironically, support for Villanueva was driven in part by the backlash against President Trump and his anti-immigrant policies.

“For us at the time, it was related to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and children being in cages … and we were not going to let a Republican administration implement those polices,” Gonzalez said. “We needed a sheriff willing to get ICE out of the jails and create criminal justice reforms, and there were a number of [Villanueva] platforms and promises … that we coalesced behind.”

L.A. County’s sheriff has spent most of his time defending his department with the bluster of a lesser John Wayne character and a skin thinner than tulle.

April 27, 2022

A lot of people jumped on that bandwagon, as Villanueva scored big among young voters, women, Spanish speakers, liberals, moderates and older white conservatives.

What’s the line?

Fool me once, shame on you.

Fool me twice, shame on me.