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Sheriff Villanueva moved to the right. A weak election showing now makes him vulnerable

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks to supporters on election night.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks to supporters at an election-night gathering in Boyle Heights on Tuesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

As Los Angeles County sheriff, Alex Villanueva has tacked to the right, becoming a regular guest on Fox News and decrying “wokeism.”

He has flouted conventional rules, thumbing his nose at a civilian oversight commission and donning a cowboy hat to confront homelessness on another police agency’s turf.

But even in a moment when fear of crime and disorder is high, Villanueva’s brashness has not translated into overwhelming support, leaving him vulnerable to defeat in a November runoff election.

Facing a heavily Democratic electorate in Tuesday’s primary, he raked in about 34% of the vote, according to early returns, with eight challengers splitting the other 66%.

Four years ago, as a little-known retired lieutenant, Villanueva upset the incumbent sheriff — a feat that had not been accomplished in more than a century.

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Now, he is trying to ward off the same fate.

His likely opponent is retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, who came in second with about 25% of the votes. A spokesperson for the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder said the results would be updated Friday.

Local Democratic officials felt betrayed by Villanueva’s conservative turn but had failed to coalesce around any of his opponents. In a two-man contest, the party — and anti-Villanueva voters — could rally around Luna.

Luna registered as a Democrat in 2020 after previously registering with no party preference in 2018, according to voter records. Before that, he was registered as a Republican. Villanueva is a registered Democrat.

“There are many reservations people have about him, and those reservations drew opposition — and that probably kind of put a ceiling on him for the primary,” Raphael Sonenshein, head of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said of Villanueva.

With low voter turnout — in L.A. County as of Wednesday it hovered just above 14% — the primary results are not necessarily a referendum on Villanueva’s rightward shift, Sonenshein said, with November “almost like a new election.”

“November is really going to be like taking a deck of cards, then adding three times the cards in every shuffling,” Sonenshein said.

Villanueva’s status as an incumbent could work in his favor with the broader swath of voters likely to turn out for the general election, said Frank Zerunyan, a USC professor on the practice of governance.

Villanueva’s campaign manager, Javier Gonzalez, said he felt the sheriff should have won outright Tuesday. But Gonzalez acknowledged that brash rhetoric from the campaign may have turned off voters.

Gonzalez has used social media to call Times columnist Gustavo Arellano an “emasculated puppet Latino” and engaged in Twitter fights with critics and activists.

“Some of the things we need to work on is, one: Showing people Luna’s record and, two: Really maybe adjusting our approach a bit — growing up a little bit,” he said. “On my end. I don’t want to put that on the sheriff.”

In Tuesday’s primary, Villanueva earned the lowest percentage of an incumbent sheriff in at least a century.

In 2018, then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell scored 48% of the vote in the primary, a couple of percentage points shy of the simple majority he needed to avoid a runoff, which he lost to Villanueva.

L.A. County’s Democratic Party machine played a huge role in Villanueva’s upset victory over McDonnell, with many liberals rallying around Villanueva and his promises to protect immigrants.

After he took office, Democrats quickly became disillusioned by his actions, beginning with his rehiring of a deputy fired over allegations of domestic violence and dishonesty, and last year called on him to resign.

He has been criticized for what observers call a weak response to gang-like groups of deputies who are accused of celebrating on-duty shootings. He also came under fire for, among other things, trying to cover up the fact that deputies shared graphic photos of the site where Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed. More recently, he was accused by top commanders of covering up an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes.

Villanueva has reveled in publicly rebuking local elected Democrats — whom he has accused of worshiping “at the altar of wokeism” — for what he sees as their inept handling of the local homelessness crisis. And he has dramatically increased the number of permits allowing people to carry concealed guns.

Despite Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s sharp political shift to the right and a series of scandals, L.A. County’s Democratic Party apparatus has shown no signs of mounting a meaningful offensive as the sheriff seeks reelection.

Mark Gonzalez, chair of the county’s Democratic Party, said he feels many Democrats will rally to support Luna, whether they backed him in the primary.

“All of the other candidates ran on a platform that was basically against Alex,” Gonzalez said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if folks line up behind Chief Luna.”

He said Villanueva’s lackluster performance in the primary, as well as the gap between Luna and the other challengers, was unexpected.

Luna became the first Latino police chief in Long Beach when he took over from McDonnell, who was elected sheriff in 2014. Luna, who grew up in East L.A., joined the Long Beach force at 18 and, during his 36-year career there, held every rank.

“Voters are smart, voters are doing their research and they’re looking for change,” Gonzalez said. “It’s no longer about bringing reform to the department, which is what Alex ran on [in 2018], but about civility and the issue of public safety. That’s what’s at the front of people’s minds right now.”

Cynthia Hart, a secretary for the Culver City Democratic Club, had supported L.A. County Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Strong, the most progressive candidate among the challengers, who sits at third place with about 13% of the vote. She said Wednesday that she will shift her support to Luna.

“Though I still think Eric Strong would have been a lot better than Villanueva, I do think Robert Luna would be an improvement,” she said. “I expect Luna to stop the damage. He’s not going to make things worse.”

Hart, who said she felt betrayed by Villanueva’s rightward political shift since he became sheriff, has high expectations for Luna if he wins in November.

“He could restore trust with the community, better communication, he could try to get this problem with the deputy gangs under control,” she said. “I want him to do what Villanueva said he would do, which is due process for everyone, for everyone to be treated fairly.”

Hans Johnson, president of East Area Progressive Democrats, which endorsed Luna before the primary, called Luna’s performance Tuesday “really impressive.”

Johnson said Wednesday morning that it bodes well for his chances in the runoff.

“I think a lot of jaws dropped as the first numbers became apparent last night,” he said, cautioning that there’s still a lot of work ahead for progressives who want to see Villanueva unseated.

At Villanueva’s election watch party in East L.A. on Tuesday night, Rudy Lopez ticked off a number of reasons why he supported Villanueva — he’s approachable, a family man and “someone who understands our needs.”

Lopez said that the sheriff’s detractors formed their opinions based on “bad publicity,” ignoring the work he did in the community.

He dismissed the former Long Beach police chief as an outsider who didn’t know the communities that make up East L.A.

“We don’t see Luna in a lot of communities,” Lopez said. “We know (Villanueva).”

Times staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.


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