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L.A. County Sheriff Villanueva trailing in bid for second term, voters back new firing powers

Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaking into a microphone on a stage
Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks to supporters during an election night rally in Los Angeles.
(Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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After a tumultuous first term marked by his combativeness and controversies, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s bid for reelection was at risk Wednesday morning as early results showed his opponent, Robert Luna, taking a sizable lead.

With more than 1.2 million ballots counted , Luna had won 56.78% of the votes to Villanueva’s 43.22%. The early returns also showed overwhelming support for Measure A, the ballot measure that would give the county’s Board of Supervisors the power to fire a sitting sheriff, with 70% voting in favor.

The race has gotten slightly closer since Tuesday night, with Luna’s lead down nearly a percentage point.

In a speech to supporters around 11 p.m., Luna struck a triumphant tone, despite the incomplete results.

“What we have now … are the first numbers — and they look good,” said the retired Long Beach police chief, who was flanked onstage by members of his family.

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Villanueva, meanwhile, was left hoping for a comeback. During a short speech, he reminded the downbeat crowd how on election night four years ago he had initially trailed but surged into the lead when the vote tally was updated the next morning.

Noting that he had also made up some ground this time when the vote count was updated, Villanueva said the “trend is good.”

“This first term and hopefully not my last term in office, we did things that no one had ever done before,” he said. “We spoke truth to power.”

The close of polls on a rainy Tuesday night brought an end to a campaign widely viewed as a referendum on Villanueva, a highly controversial figure who battled endlessly with elected officials and others with the authority to oversee him and the department.

As the early results were flashed onto a screen in a corner of an airy venue where Luna was holding an election night party, supporters sent up excited whistles. Members of a mariachi band tuned their instruments.

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Among the attendees were several of Luna’s former challengers in the primary election, including Eric Strong, a lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Department who had campaigned on bringing greater oversight to the department.

Robert Luna greets supporters.
Robert Luna, middle, greets supporters during election night in Long Beach.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

“Robert brings a good history of that type of oversight already, he said. “I think that people are tired of the ridiculousness of Villanueva.”

Things were more subdued at Villanueva’s gathering in Montebello. A few in the crowd wore cowboy hats in an apparent nod to the one Villanueva has sometimes sported on the campaign trail.

Villanueva struggled to build momentum throughout the campaign. He finished first in the primary in June, but won only 31% of the vote — an underwhelming performance for an incumbent and not nearly enough to avoid a runoff against Luna, who finished second with 26% of the vote.

Polls showed Villanueva lagging behind Luna in the head-to-head race and battling against high disapproval ratings. Luna, meanwhile, had to work to overcome his obscurity in the county, where the polls showed relatively few knew who he was.

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“This has had sort of a character of almost a recall election, where you don’t really know the replacement candidates all that well but you decide whether to keep the incumbent in office,” said Raphe Sonenshein, head of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “If he loses, then I think that’s a pretty stunning rebuke of his period as sheriff.”

Sonenshein added of Villanueva: “If he wins, I think it would kind of challenge the conventional wisdom that he’s made so many enemies in L.A. that he couldn’t possibly be reelected.”

There were few reports of disruptions or problems at Southern California polling places, although a powerful storm pummeled the region and closed two voting centers.

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Luna, who headed the Long Beach Police Department for seven years before retiring last year, positioned himself during the campaign as the level-headed alternative to Villanueva and vowed he would work with the county elected officials Villanueva has vilified. He received the endorsements of all five county supervisors, and the sheriff candidates he beat in the June primary threw their support to him.

If Luna prevails, he would take the helm next month of a large, unwieldy agency that patrols large swaths of the sprawling county and has been buffeted by years of instability and turnover in the top post. He would be its fourth sheriff since former Sheriff Lee Baca resigned eight years ago amid a federal corruption probe that ultimately sent him to prison.

The department has been under heavy scrutiny over a steady stream of scandals, many of which erupted during Villanueva’s watch and others that predate him.

There is, for example, an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general’s office into potential civil rights abuses by sheriff’s deputies and another by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission into gang-like groups of deputies that operate in the department.

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A victory for Villanueva would mean continuity in leadership but set the stage for a different sort of instability as a second term would probably embolden Villanueva to continue with his well-worn practice of antagonizing people who oversee him and his budget.

The sheriff has been locked in a long-running power struggle with the county’s Board of Supervisors, which controls the department’s $3.8-billion budget. He’s also at war with the Oversight Commission and the county’s inspector general — what Villanueva calls the supervisors’ “attack dogs” — over their attempts to keep him in check. He has repeatedly challenged subpoenas calling on him to testify under oath about various problems and issues in the department and has been accused by critics of targeting political opponents with criminal investigations.

The years of fighting with Villanueva were so contentious that the supervisors took the extraordinary step of putting the measure on Tuesday’s ballot that asked voters for the power to remove a sitting sheriff from office if at least four out of the five supervisors agree he or she is unfit for office.

Over his four years as sheriff, Villanueva lost the support of many of the Democratic backers who gave him his improbable victory in 2018 as he shed the progressive persona he had shown voters and rebranded himself as a far more conservative, law-and-order sheriff. An underpinning of his reelection campaign, he said often, was his wish to have more time to undo what he sees as the damage of policies of liberal elected officials that he blames for homelessness and crime.

Many onetime allies, aides and supporters have fallen out with him, with some accusing him of abusing his power . And several sheriff’s employees, including some at top ranks, have filed lawsuits against him and the department. Last week, two Black supervisors within the department, Sgt. Reginald Hoffman and Lt. John Lindsay, sued the agency for racial discrimination.

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They both cited an allegation made in another lawsuit by a former top-ranking official, retired Chief LaJuana Haselrig, who is also Black. When she advocated for opportunities for Black deputies to promote, Villanueva told her: “We have enough of you,” her lawsuit said.

Also last week, the Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $47.6 million to settle several lawsuits alleging misconduct by sheriff’s deputies.

In the run-up to the election, Villanueva’s campaign spent much of its energy trying to attack Luna’s image. The campaign blasted out emails targeting Luna’s record in Long Beach, calling him out for the department’s use of a texting application that automatically deleted messages and criticizing him for failing to promote Black women in the department.

Early Tuesday morning, voters trickled in and out of a polling center at Marina del Rey Middle School after the rain subsided. Bob Stillman, 50, said he voted for Luna on the advice of his wife. She listened to a five-part LAist podcast on the incumbent and “she was not pleased.”

Janet Green, an 84-year-old Ladera Heights resident, said she voted for Villanueva because he “makes the best decisions” and “fights the bulls—.” She said she appreciated his efforts to clean up crime and homelessness, a problem she sees every day driving through Marina del Rey.

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Homelessness was at the top of Sabine Pleissner’s mind as well. The 46-year-old Mar Vista resident voted for Luna.

“I’m no expert, but I do have the impression it’s not going that well” with the incumbent, she said.

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