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Sheriff Villanueva in tight race as challenger Robert Luna has edge in new poll

LONG BEACH, CA - JUNE 07: Retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna,
Retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, center, on the night of the primary election in June. A strong showing propelled Luna into a runoff against Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and he has a slight lead in the race, a new poll shows.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna has an early edge over incumbent Alex Villanueva in the runoff for Los Angeles County sheriff, with support for the candidates falling largely along political lines, according to a new poll by UC Berkeley co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

Luna is favored strongly by liberals and Democrats, with 46% of voters who identify as strongly liberal saying they’d choose him and only 7% supporting Villanueva.

The sheriff, meanwhile, is more popular among conservative and Republican voters: 54% of voters who described themselves as strongly conservative said they’d vote to re-elect Villanueva if the election were held today. Only 13% said they’d select Luna.

“The question then, is where would you rather be?” said Mark DiCamillo, who directed the poll for Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and has been surveying California voters for decades.

“In L.A. County, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 3 to 1. Villanueva is not doing well among that huge constituency. That’s why I think in the early stages here, he’s got some problems.”

Overall, 31% of L.A. County voters support Luna, while 27% support Villanueva, poll results show.

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But with nearly three months of campaigning still to go before the Nov. 8 election, the race remains wide open as a large segment of voters — 40% — are still undecided on who they want to head one of the country’s largest local law enforcement agencies.

The poll also found significant support for a measure recently added to the November ballot that would give the county’s Board of Supervisors the power to force out a sitting sheriff. According to the poll, 52% of voters said they support the idea, while 22% said they would vote against it. The rest were undecided.

In the June primary election, Villanueva and Luna emerged as clear favorites from a crowded field of candidates and advanced to a runoff. Not well known outside of Long Beach, Luna surprised many with his performance, finishing a few percentage points behind Villanueva, who won about 31% of the vote. The tally was widely viewed as a poor result for an incumbent sheriff and left Villanueva looking vulnerable going into the head-to-head race.

The political divisions apparent in the poll results highlight a clear shift in Villanueva’s base of support since 2018, when he wooed progressive Democrats with a promise to kick immigration agents out of the L.A. County jails at a time when many left-leaning voters were frustrated with former President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. The strategy resulted in an improbable upset as Villanueva, a longtime registered Democrat, became the first challenger to unseat an incumbent sheriff in more than a century.

Among the state’s Democrats, Gov. Gavin Newsom has the edge over Vice President Kamala Harris to be President Biden’s successor in 2024.

Villanueva has since rebranded himself as a more conservative, law-and-order sheriff and candidate, making regular appearances on Fox News to rail against the “woke left” and seize on voter frustrations with homelessness and crime.

Luna, meanwhile, has spent much of his life registered as a Republican. He registered as a Democrat in 2020 after previously switching from Republican to no party preference in 2018, according to voter records.

Despite Luna’s past affiliation as a Republican, much of the county’s Democratic party machine has begun to coalesce behind him in an effort to unseat Villanueva. The L.A. County Democratic Party and all five members of the Board of Supervisors, all but one of whom lean left, are backing Luna. And he recently secured the support of Lt. Eric Strong, who ran for sheriff in the June primary as the most progressive of the bunch and finished in third, receiving 16% of the vote.

Luna nonetheless lacks name recognition. The poll results show that 59% of voters don’t have an opinion of him, while 31% said they think favorably of him and 11% unfavorably.

Villanueva faces a starkly different set of challenges as a well-known, polarizing candidate who is disliked by a large section of voters. While only 31% of people polled said they had no opinion about the sheriff, 39% of said they think of him unfavorably and 30% favorably.

“People don’t know much about sheriffs except what they see in the news — Villanueva is always in the news,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, head of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “It’s always kind of hard for a challenger to get in the game.”

On the other hand, he said, “Villanueva has not really gained ground since his disappointing showing in the primary.”

Most voters who remain undecided on the race also have not formed opinions about Luna, the poll showed.

“He has yet to seal the deal, which would come from mobilizing everybody who doesn’t want Villanueva to be reelected,” Sonenshein said.

But with Luna unfamiliar to so many people, the poll suggests Villanueva has an opportunity to try to define Luna for voters before Luna can introduce himself. It is an opening Villanueva has already seized on: A few days before the June primary, his campaign released an ad — both in English and Spanish — attacking Luna as “a right wing” Republican “pretending to be a Democrat.”

The poll was conducted Aug. 9 to 15 among 4,538 L.A. County voters, 3,067 of whom were identified as being likely to vote in the November election. The margin of error is estimated at approximately 2.5 percentage points in either direction.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva meets with supporters after speaking at an election night gathering in Boyle Heights in June.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Among likely voters, Luna’s lead is wider, according to the poll. More than 40% of people in that group said they were supporting Luna, compared with 29% for Villanueva. The number of undecided voters in that group is also smaller — 28%.

Among all registered voters, Villanueva has a small lead over Luna among Latino voters, with 34% supporting Villanueva and 27% for Luna. Luna is more popular among Black voters, with 37% supporting him compared with 17% for Villanueva. Asian voters are more evenly divided, with 24% for Luna and 21% for Villanueva.

How Villanueva has handled allegations of misconduct made against deputies in his department could pose challenges for him. The poll shows 46% of voters don’t think he responded to such allegations well, while about a quarter of voters think he handled them well or very well. Thirty percent had no opinion.

“Allegations of police misconduct are working against Villanueva, and that would be a campaign theme, I would think, for Luna,” DiCamillo said.

Villanueva has come under fire for not doing enough to crack down on gang-like groups of deputies who for decades have been accused of wielding significant control over department stations and glorifying violence.

He’s also a focal point in Vanessa Bryant’s ongoing civil trial against L.A. County over photos deputies shared of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Lakers star Kobe Bryant, her daughter and seven others. When he learned of the illicit photos, Villanueva tried to keep the scandal under wraps, promising the deputies they wouldn’t be punished if they came clean and deleted the photos. An investigation wasn’t opened until after The Times published an account of what had occurred.

And Villanueva was accused by high-ranking Sheriff’s officials of trying to keep quiet an incident where a deputy kneeled on the head of a handcuffed inmate. The Sheriff’s Department’s handling of the case is the subject of a criminal grand jury investigation.

The strong support for the ballot measure that would allow county supervisors to remove a sheriff from office correlates strongly with voter preferences on Villanueva and Luna: 74% of voters who back Luna also want the supervisors to be able to kick a sheriff from office. Meanwhile, more than half the voters who said they were voting for Villanueva were against the measure.

That breakdown suggests voters’ willingness to hand such an extraordinary power to the supervisors is driven at least in part by their views of Villanueva. The proposal stems from the board’s long-running feud with the sheriff, in which the two sides have repeatedly clashed over the sheriff’s resistance to oversight, as well as budget and hiring issues.

If the charter amendment is approved, the board would have the authority to remove a sheriff for serious misconduct, including “flagrant or repeated neglect of duties, misappropriation of funds, willful falsification of documents or obstructing an investigation.”

The obstruction language is particularly significant as Villanueva has been accused repeatedly of flouting oversight and stonewalling county watchdogs by refusing to cooperate with their investigations. He has repeatedly refused to appear before a civilian oversight panel when it has subpoenaed him to answer questions under oath about groups of deputies that are said to resemble street gangs, and other problems in the department.

Villanueva has called the proposal a “cheap political stunt” designed to hurt his chances at getting reelected. He suggested that he may mount a legal challenge, saying he believed the measure would be deemed unconstitutional by the courts.

“The Board is attempting to cheat the system and create a ‘fast-track’ pathway to remove a duly elected sheriff, one which circumvents the law and the foundational principles of due process enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment,” he wrote in a letter to the board.


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