L.A. Democrats failed to mount united campaign against Sheriff Villanueva despite anger
To pull off his improbable win in 2018, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva convinced liberal Democratic voters he was one of their own.
Many of them were in for a rude shock. Villanueva has spent his first term in office thumbing his nose at the “woke left” and rebranding himself as a swashbuckling lawman who holds court on Fox News and has gained a following among some on the right.
Despite anger over Villanueva’s political shift, L.A. County Democratic clubs and progressive advocacy groups, hampered by infighting and indecision, have failed to unite behind any of the candidates seeking to unseat the sheriff, according to party officials, delegates and voters.
Bolstered by the endorsement of the union representing rank-and-file deputies, Villanueva, meanwhile, has amassed a war chest that dwarfs what his competitors have managed to raise. The money — and the bully pulpit that comes with being sheriff — has helped Villanueva to appeal to voters’ growing discontent over crime and homelessness, which he blames on the policies of other elected officials, who he likes to quip “worship at the altar of wokeism.”
L.A. County sheriff candidates ride ‘anyone but Villanueva’ wave, but lack name recognition
As the June primary approaches, Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s opponents have ammunition with which to try to unseat him, but they aren’t well known.
It remains to be seen how much, if at all, a series of scandals will hurt the sheriff at the polls. When deputies took and passed around graphic photos of the site where Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed, Villanueva directed a cover-up of the misconduct. He has defied repeated subpoenas from county officials requiring him to testify about gang-like groups of deputies in the department. And in the last few months, he has been accused of participating in the cover-up of an abusive deputy and then was pilloried nationally for announcing a Los Angeles Times reporter was the subject of a criminal leak investigation.
The controversies have made the sheriff the subject of growing criticism from county supervisors and the department’s own oversight committee, as well as some police reform activists. But they have also given Villanueva something his challengers lack: attention, publicity and name recognition that will serve him well on a crowded ballot.
“We’ve just all been drinking water from a fire hydrant,” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who teaches election law and is a former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. “To the extent that we talk about the sheriff’s race, the thing that sucks up all the oxygen room is typically Villanueva and his antics.”
Surveys in the spring found a significant share of the public had an unfavorable view of the sheriff, suggesting he could have trouble getting the 50% of the vote in Tuesday’s election needed to avoid a runoff.
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The problems for Democrats surfaced in January.
A faction of the L.A. County Democratic Party’s leadership wanted to endorse Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo and use the party’s money and political muscle to put him forth as the anti-Villanueva.
For the record:
3:52 p.m. June 4, 2022In an earlier version of this article, the chair of the L.A. County Democratic Party was quoted as saying Cecil Rhambo “just missed” winning the party’s endorsement. Rhambo missed winning the endorsement by a significant margin.
Rhambo had previously received the backing of the party’s screening committee, but many Democratic clubs across the county weren’t onboard with that plan. When party officials called for a vote, Rhambo fell short of the 60% threshold needed to win the endorsement, according to party chair Mark Gonzalez.
“Folks weren’t necessarily at the time in January lined up behind any one candidate,” Gonzalez said this month in an interview. “We did that early, and I think that timing could have always of course been an issue because there were candidates jumping in.”
Alex Villanueva faces several challengers who that argue his first term has been marked by scandals and that voters should throw him out.
The failed vote led to finger-pointing and left a void the party never managed to fill.
Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats — a Democratic Party club whose membership hails from a number of communities including Boyle Heights, Echo Park, El Sereno and Eagle Rock — blames the party’s county leadership.
“Officers of the county party tried to circle the wagons prematurely in January around Cecil Rhambo, and there was a powerful pushback to that premature effort to wrangle Democrats in the wrong direction,” he said. “Look at the top of the party structure for why we are in this predicament.”
Johnson’s club endorsed Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.
Villanueva “really broke our hearts,” said Cynthia Hart, corresponding secretary for the Culver City Democratic Club, which endorsed him during the 2018 election he would go on to win.
“I thought he was George Gascón. I thought he was a reformer. I thought he was the real thing,” she said, referring to L.A. County’s progressive district attorney, who is facing a recall pushed by Villanueva and others who object to what they see as his lenient approach to criminal justice.
The Culver City Democratic Club endorsed yet another of the Democratic candidates for sheriff, Eric Strong, a former L.A. County Sheriff’s Department internal affairs investigator.
Mitch Tsai, a delegate to the Los Angeles County Democratic Party’s central committee who represents Assembly District 41 — which stretches across northern reaches of the county from Altadena to Monrovia to Upland — chose to wait “to see how the primary played out” and opted against voting to make an early endorsement.
“It was pretty clear that the body hadn’t settled on a candidate as of January when we took that vote. When we took that vote, we just weren’t ready for it,” he said.
Six of the eight challengers running against incumbent Alex Villanueva have at one time worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
After Rhambo failed to garner the necessary votes, party officials held another round of voting with all the candidates eligible. With several names to choose from, “there was no consensus,” Tsai said.
That’s remained the case for the last six months. Candidates have been left largely to their own devices, trying to distinguish themselves from the others and put a dent in Villanueva on tight campaign budgets. For voters who disapprove of the incumbent sheriff, picking an alternative might be hard.
“It’s really caused an enormous amount of confusion for voters because these are not well-known candidates. There’s no party affiliations for people to go on. And so, they’re going on name and job title and/or endorsements,” Levinson said. “Whenever you have a really important, but low-information, race like this, people are just … grasping for signposts to tell them who they should be voting for.”
Like other voters who spoke to The Times, Long Beach resident Timothy Grayson said he knows “very little” about the race and that it’s “not on my radar” this year.
“With the existing sheriff, I’ve heard about corruption or something like that. He seems like a cowboy. He’s kind of independent, in a bad way,” Grayson said as he traveled east on the Metro Green Line.
“I don’t think I plan on voting,” he said. “Can’t say if someone’s going to be better if you don’t know who he is. And I have no idea about the other candidates.”
And San Pedro resident James Bates said that while he has a notion that Villanueva doesn’t care “about anyone else but him and his people,” he doesn’t know who he would choose to replace him.
“I’m absolutely not aware” of the race, he said. “I don’t really know much about it at all.”
That doesn’t mean the sheriff doesn’t face a risk at the polls. Recent surveys have revealed a significant percentage of registered voters have negative opinions of the sheriff. A UCLA survey of 1,400 L.A. County residents published in April found that 37% of voters had a “very or somewhat favorable” view of Villanueva, 33% have a “very or somewhat unfavorable” view of the sheriff, and 30% have no opinion or are unfamiliar with him. The survey did not ask about his challengers.
And polling of registered voters in L.A. city by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies for the Los Angeles Times also showed significant disapproval of Villanueva’s performance as sheriff.
Villanueva is likely to get a boost by the work he did to stop federal immigration authorities from working inside county jails — a move that was popular with Latino voters, said Jessica Pishko, a Texas-based lawyer who has written extensively about sheriff’s races, including the current one in L.A.
And perhaps more important, Pishko argued, Villanueva has deftly ridden a wave of resistance against progressive criminal justice reforms — as well as some of its biggest champions, like Gascón.
“One way of reading it is, ‘Oh Villanueva tricked us and got into office.’ But another way of interpreting the situation is that criminal justice reformers overestimated how much support they had,” she said. “Maybe people do care a lot more about the cost of living and how they’ll pay their bills … than whether there are too many people in jail.”
Meanwhile, the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs — the sheriff’s deputies’ union —has formally endorsed Villanueva after what it described as a months-long review of the candidates.
“It is clear that the Sheriff’s support of the deputies throughout the pandemic, his position on the Vaccine mandate and his unwavering stance on public safety were factors that impacted the members,” the union said in a statement.
“If anyone gets close, I think it’s just going to be because Villanueva has annoyed enough people,” Pishko said. “But he’s popular. What do you do when someone is popular and democratically elected?”
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