Column: From activist to troll. What happened to the L.A. County sheriff’s campaign manager?
In all my years reporting on politics, I’ve never met someone quite like Javier Gonzalez.
He’s the campaign manager for Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. He’s also a troll.
His Twitter tirades make Donald Trump seem as sedate as Mr. Spock.
Gonzalez has used his account and fake ones to call me an “emasculated puppet Latino” and my Times colleague Alene Tchekmedyian — who covers the L.A. County Sheriff‘s Department — a “paid propagandist.” He has threatened to reveal the address of a critical reporter, has insinuated that anti-Villanueva public officials are corrupt and derided the woman-led San Gabriel nonprofit La Defensa as “La Pendeja.”
This is a guy out of 4chan. But then you get to his resume, as I did, and you ask yourself: How the heck did the guy I’m reading about there end up over here?
It’s a resume that doubles as an unofficial timeline of Latino political might in Southern California over the past generation. What it doesn’t seem to predict is the present-day pendejo I have described above.
Here’s someone who was once involved in protests against youth curfews and police brutality in his hometown of Santa Monica during the early 1990s. By his own account, he looted during the L.A. riots. He was a labor strategist and on the front lines of immigrant rights marches. Gonzalez was even a western states deputy field director for Bernie Sanders in 2016.
That’s right: Villanueva’s self-proclaimed “soldier,” who has helped the sheriff take a hard turn to the right to fight the “woke left,” once felt the Bern.
The son of a gardener-turned-janitor, Gonzalez was a self-admitted “knucklehead from the street” until too many encounters with law enforcement convinced him that community activism was the only way out of it. After attending UCLA, he ended up with the Service Employees International Union and credits legendary labor leaders Miguel Contreras and Mike Garcia for his political stripes.
Among the L.A. politicians currently in office whose campaigns Gonzalez has helped on, either directly or via independent expenditures: Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Councilmember Gil Cedillo and Los Angeles Unified School District board member Monica Garcia. Even Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, Villanueva’s mortal enemy.
“He’s one of the smartest people that I know, and I’ve met a lot of smart people,” said Chris Newman, legal director and general counsel for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
The two worked together in the early 2010s on a musician boycott of Arizona over Senate Bill 1070, a controversial anti-immigrant state law modeled after California’s own Proposition 187.
“Everyone in this city wants access to his thought process, because his thought process is uniquely insightful,” Newman added.
Most of the Latino Left in Los Angeles wants to know what happened to that Gonzalez.
I went to a Santa Fe Springs industrial park on a chilly weekday evening to find out.
Dozens of volunteers made phone calls in English and Spanish from a cramped room at Villanueva’s campaign headquarters. In the parking lot, supporters took photos in front of a backdrop that read “Finally Someone on Our Side” and “33 Y Que!” The latter slogan referenced Villanueva’s status as L.A. County’s 33rd sheriff and a Chicano Spanish term of defiance that means, “And what of it?”
The sheriff was about to debut an ominous short film that claimed that L.A. County’s homelessness issue is the fault of nonprofits, a favorite Gonzalez punching bag.
Since 2018, he has helped Villanueva carve his path to power. That year, he forged an unlikely alliance of Latino and Black Lives Matter activists, labor leaders, deputies and titans like County Supervisor Gloria Molina and Dolores Huerta to back Villanueva against incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell. Gonzalez mobilized this group with the help of a political action committee he headed to make 2 million phone calls, send 3 million text messages, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers and flood social media with memes and videos.
The result: a historic upset few ever envisioned except Gonzalez. And the ear of one of the most powerful, polarizing elected officials in Southern California.
“He’s been very important,” Villanueva told me. “He has an uncanny ability of what an issue is, and how to frame it.”
Gonzalez promised his friends and allies a progressive reformer; instead, Villanueva has careened from one controversy to another and revealed himself to be a Nixonian politician obsessed with enemies, real and imagined. Instead of denouncing the sheriff, Gonzalez — who has already directed over half a million dollars in campaign donations this year toward increasingly dystopian ads — has goaded him every step of the way.
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“I’m disappointed for him,” says longtime Chicano activist Carlos Montes, who worked with Gonzalez on various issues after meeting him about 20 years ago. “He was part of the movement, and now he’s working for someone that’s representing everything we were fighting against. He tricked us.”
When Villanueva finished his remarks in Santa Fe Springs, Gonzalez was the first person to clap. Then he took the mic.
“The problem [critics] have, this man is willing to speak truth to power,” the 49-year-old said before a small crowd. “And that makes them feel uncomfortable.”
Stocky with sunken eyes and a wide grin, Gonzalez is a super-fast talker, a habitual cusser and has a sharp mind — he’s as apt to shout out former Congressman Ed Roybal and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata as libertarian icons Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell.
“I’m impulsive,” Gonzalez admitted to me when we sat down for an interview before the Villanueva campaign event. He wore a flat cap, a softball-style long-sleeved shirt emblazoned with the Aztec calendar on his chest and a tattoo on his right forearm that read, “Let’s Get Free.”
Gonzalez conceded that even he has wondered in the past whether he was “selling out” by defending Villanueva so vigorously.
“But the energy’s shifting,” he said. “Who is talking about the elites? The right. Who’s contracting out government contracts to the billionaires? The left. Who’s the most diverse agency in L.A. County? The cops.
“Bro,” he concluded, “you can shoot me in the f— head. I’m tripping out trying to figure this out.”
When he was with the SEIU, Gonzalez investigated wage thefts and eventually became the political director for Local 1877, the L.A. home for the famed “Justice for Janitors” campaign.
But one day, “I just stopped believing,” he said. Despite all his work, “janitors are dying. They’re still poor. And I’m just like, this is bulls—. I’m out.”
Gonzalez helped to start a nonprofit that registered voters in L.A. County, and founded his own campaign consulting firm, vowing, “The next time I have a big victory, I’m going to work to implement change.” When a friend asked him to analyze Villanueva’s prospects in 2018, Gonzalez agreed.
He told Villanueva the only way he could win was to push Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of L.A. County jails, an issue that angered immigrant rights activists because then-Sheriff McDonnell refused to do so. Doing that would bring on labor and Democrats.
Villanueva agreed, then asked Gonzalez to sit next to him at a meeting with L.A. County Sheriff’s Department bigwigs who wanted McDonnell out but still weren’t sold on the challenger.
“It was a lot of brass and that still — to this day, bro — makes me uncomfortable,” Gonzalez said. “But I sat down and [Villanueva] said, ‘Tell them what you told me.’”
Soon after, the union that represents sheriff’s deputies went with Villanueva.
In historic upset, Alex Villanueva beats incumbent Jim McDonnell in race for Los Angeles County sheriff
Alex Villanueva, a little-known lieutenant who mounted an improbable campaign to lead one of the nation’s largest policing agencies, will replace Jim McDonnell as Los Angeles County sheriff, marking a stunning upset for a seat that hasn’t seen an incumbent lose in more than a century.
Gonzalez maintains Villanueva’s scandals are largely overblown because the sheriff is Latino.
“This man was a deputy for 32 years. You can’t find a fart he did,” Gonzalez said. “He loves his wife — he calls her Sweetpea. One glass of wine gets him tipsy. He goes to church every Sunday.”
That church is St. Alphonsus in East Los Angeles, where Villanueva filmed a fire-and-brimstone commercial at Gonzalez’s suggestion without the clearance of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It was taken down.
I asked Gonzalez about deputy gangs.
“What did they do? Whose life did they take that they shouldn’t have?” he said.” And I’m not saying they don’t, but I’m also saying that man [Villanueva] f— hates them more than you think.”
What about deputies stopping Black and Latino cyclists at an inordinate rate?
“That’s fine with me,” Gonzalez said, because he said it happens in high-crime areas.
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What about allegations of multiple cover-ups?
“When the LAPD does stuff, do [activists] call for Chief [Michel] Moore to be fired?”
Well, what about Villanueva holding a news conference to imply my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian was a criminal because she reported on an abuse case involving a deputy?
Gonzalez sat up.
“I didn’t even know about it until afterward!” he protested. “I was just like, ‘I just told you [Villanueva] — we need white women! Why are you pointing a stick at one? What are you doing? What are you doing?’”
It’s moments like that, Gonzalez said, when his Twitter troll persona flares up.
“Look carefully at when I escalated,” he said. “I’m distracting people [from] maybe some bad press.”
I asked if his once-left politics had changed. He said he wrote in Sanders for the 2020 presidential election but has recently read polemic tomes like “Woke Racism” and “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”
“With my daughters older, I’m more concerned about different things” like safety, he said.
“My neighbors in East L.A., we go to work every day. We raise our kids, we go to Mass, we go to church on Sunday. It’s beautiful,” he said. “The [quinceañera] is practicing in the yard. And then all of a sudden — pat-pat-pat-pat-pat. And everybody runs in the house. So show me the community-based alternative that’s going to stop that.”
Gonzalez vowed that he was changing, though, even as two PR people nearby waved their hands whenever he went on a profanity-laced tangent. Every time he was about to say “woke” he’d look at them and stammer his way into a synonym.
He apologized for once calling me “taco boy.”
Small steps, I guess.
Gonzalez also admits to being annoyed by Villanueva’s critics, whom he dismisses as “wealthy, well-to-do” and privileged. “Why do I hate these f— kids? Why do they get on my nerves?”
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