Column: It wasn’t quite a victory party. But Robert Luna is ready to be sheriff
Robert Luna waited in the doorway leading into a small ballroom at the Grand in Long Beach on Tuesday night.
Before him, about 200 people returned his wide grin. On a stage backed by a giant American flag, Mariachi Las Flores blew the jaunty opening notes of “La Diana,” the traditional Mexican song of triumph. Evangelical pastors blew shofars — because, why not?
The first election returns had just come in for Los Angeles County sheriff. Luna, a retired Long Beach police chief, had a commanding lead over incumbent Alex Villanueva. Many ballots were yet to be counted, but victory was all anyone wanted to talk about.
Luna slowly made his way to the stage as the crowd swarmed him for handshakes and hugs. So many people wanted to offer congrats that Luna’s wife, Celines, couldn’t get a cup of water to him, finally asking someone to pass it along.
Just about everyone had whipped out their phones to take photos and videos. My eyes were stuck on Luna’s feet.
The last time he and I met was at the contest’s first and only debate. I had questioned Luna then about his choice of white-soled, brown leather shoes — the type that middle-aged men wear to look cooler than they actually are. It looked like he had them on again.
“Same shoes?” I asked Luna.
“Nah, they’re different!” he said with a laugh. “I upgraded!”
Robert Luna, the former Long Beach police chief, is running to unseat Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, promising calm, not bluster, reform, not scandal.
The mariachi switched over to “El Sinaloense,” another celebratory ranchera. I asked Celines about the centerpieces on all the tables.
Earlier that day, she and Luna had gone to the Los Angeles Flower Market to pick out the sunflowers that were now inside Mason jars alongside branches of baby’s breath.
“I’ve been at peace the whole day,” said Celines, who wore an emerald-green sequined dress. “The color yellow was part of Robert’s campaign. The flowers are happiness. It’s a bright day. There’s going to be change for the people.”
The party that night was for both Luna and Robert Garcia, the Long Beach mayor who was running for Congress. But the night belonged to Luna.
The sheriff’s race has drawn national attention, pitting the voluble and controversial Villanueva against the staid Luna. Yet the vibe at Luna’s party reminded me of the quinceañeras I have attended at the Grand.
Older folks requested mariachi songs to clap along with and shimmy. Guests sucked on the Tootsie Roll lollipops strewn on tables or gobbled up plates of macaroni. A DJ spun Chicano party classics — Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton, Selena and cumbias. Everyone partied as though they were trying to exorcise the past four years of paranoia and vendettas Villanueva has wrought upon L.A. County.
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“It’s the first time [Luna and his wife] had a campaign party,” said Jeff Millman, his campaign strategist and one of the few people in the room wearing a mask. “Last time, they celebrated in their backyard.”
He was referring to June’s primary. Villanueva came in first against eight challengers but received less than 50% of the vote, triggering a runoff against Luna.
I attended the sheriff’s party that election night, at a bar in East Los Angeles. It reeked of exclusivity and menace. In addition to a check-in squad at the door, there were at least three other people guarding the entrance to the upstairs lounge where Villanueva was spending time with a favored few.
At the Grand, Luna looked like a proud uncle who wanted to greet every last niece and nephew.
He had campaigned on a return to decency for a department so distrusted by voters that they overwhelmingly approved a measure in this election to allow the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to fire a sitting sheriff.
Luna let Villanueva swing and miss again and again until el sheriff seemed like a desperate man who knew he was on his way out. Luna came off as normal, even boring.
Isn’t boring what we need to lead the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department right now?
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is in a tight race to keep his job, with retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna emerging as the front-runner.
Luna is no wide-eyed innocent, of course. Critics accused him of secrecy and not disciplining bad cops during his seven years atop the Long Beach Police Department. Jim McDonnell, former L.A. County sheriff and Luna’s former boss in Long Beach, was at the party. So were state Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) and Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian (D-North Hollywood). Burly deputies, some with Blue Lives Matter pins pinned to their suits, high-fived each other and clinked Coronas.
Nearly all of Luna’s opponents during the primary were in attendance, including Eric Strong, who finished third. The sheriff’s lieutenant said he and Luna “sat down and had long conversations” after the primary, leaving him confident that his former rival was the right person to lead the largest sheriff’s department in the country.
“Luna will be the changing of the guard,” he said. “And we sure need it.”
There were also regular people. I must’ve run into at least half a dozen of my Long Beach friends — college professors, high school counselors and stay-at-home moms alike.
George Rivera’s family owns a Mexican restaurant in the city that Luna has patronized for over a decade.
“No se le ha subido,” Rivera said, using a Mexican Spanish term that roughly means success hasn’t gone to one’s head. “And I know he’s going to be that same guy as sheriff.”
Rivera immediately responded when I asked what Luna’s regular order was. “Combo #1. Taco and enchilada plate. That’s what he’s going to be — No. 1!”
Luna stayed to hear Garcia’s victory speech, then disappeared to work on what he would say that night. When he returned at 10:45, the ballroom had thinned out only a little.
Accompanied by his brother, sister, Celines and their daughter Cesie, Luna took the podium backed by Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and hailed by — yep — shofars.
“So last Sunday, when I heard those horns,” he joked, “I was talking about maybe replace the sirens on the black and whites with those horns.”
He mentioned that the vote numbers “look[ed] good” so far.
“Landslide!” someone shouted to applause.
Luna grinned again.
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His speech was boilerplate politeness. He was graceful. He was grateful. He gave thanks to God. He proclaimed law enforcement to be one of the best professions on Earth and praised the L.A. County sheriff’s deputies who were “courageous enough” to speak out against Villanueva.
Luna never mentioned the incumbent by name but drew the loudest applause of the night when he said that L.A. County residents were “looking for a sheriff who doesn’t blame other people” when something goes wrong in the department “but looks at the mirror and says, ‘It’s on me.’ ”
The speech concluded with Luna handing out bouquets to his campaign volunteers. He acknowledged the uncertainty of the moment, as his lead narrowed every couple of hours. “This was going to be a celebration of some kind, or a retirement party — I still don’t know what it’ll be,” he said.
The crowd wouldn’t hear of any doubts. They applauded and partied and swarmed him anew.
By the morning, Luna’s lead over Villanueva had shrunk by 4 percentage points but was still big — 57% to 43%. The final results might not be known for days, or even weeks.
But Luna looked ready to lead last night. Before I left, I looked at his shoes one final time.
There was a single black scuff, on the front of his sole. No one cared.
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