Column: A eulogy for Sheriff Alex Villanueva — you could have been so much more
Alex Villanueva sat under warm lights in his home library. He was dressed in a crisp, long-sleeved shirt. Framed photos from his private life — his wedding day, his children, his younger days as a deputy, even a picture of the family golden retriever, Alvin — sat on a wooden desk.
He looked directly into a camera. “I’m not a politician. I’m not a bureaucrat. I’m a reformer,” Villanueva said.
It was May 2018, a few weeks before the primary election, and he was recording a video asking voters to choose him as the next Los Angeles County sheriff.
“Today, we desperately need to reform the Sheriff’s Department,” Villanueva continued. Gentle piano music tinkled in the background. “We cannot continue down the path we’re currently on.”
He was confident. He came across as kind. He called himself a progressive. He made the runoff against Sheriff Jim McDonnell, then won in the general election — the first time an incumbent had lost the post in over 100 years — with an unlikely coalition that included the deputies union, Democratic politicians and leftist activists. Prior to becoming sheriff, his highest rank had been lieutenant — relatively low on the command chain.
I watched that ad recently, then queued up another Villanueva video, one he released the Friday before this election day.
This time, he stands outside his drab campaign headquarters in Santa Fe Springs under an unflattering morning sun. His hands are inside his jean pockets. His polo shirt is unbuttoned and untucked. Street traffic is now his soundtrack.
This video wasn’t for public consumption. It was a fundraising plea to deputies because their union — which endorsed him but had spent a paltry $1,500 this election cycle, versus the $1 million-plus of 2018 — had “left the membership high and dry,” according to Villanueva, “and me to the fate of fighting George Soros and Jeff Katzenberg all by myself.”
He looks subdued. He looks angry. He looks scared.
He looks beat, because he soon would be.
Robert Luna, the retired police chief of Long Beach, will be Los Angeles County’s next sheriff after incumbent Alex Villanueva conceded Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Villanueva conceded that he had lost his reelection campaign to challenger Robert Luna. The retired Long Beach police chief is currently ahead of the incumbent by 60% to 40%, a gap far bigger than Villanueva’s 5-percentage-point margin of 2018.
In the past four years, Villanueva has so torched his department that L.A. County voters also overwhelmingly passed a measure that will allow the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to remove a sitting sheriff.
Villanueva’s fall from grace is as embarrassing a tumble as ever seen in the annals of local politics. Almost from the start, he turned from historic candidate to a half-Puerto Rican, half-Polish Buford T. Justice.
And yet I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy.
If Villanueva had stuck to his campaign slogan from four years ago — “Reform. Rebuild. Restore” — he could’ve transformed the position of sheriff in a county where his predecessors long ruled with an iron fist and lead bullets. He promised to drain the swamp in a department still reeling from the corruption of the Lee Baca years.
Instead, Villanueva rewarded the swamp — and then became the swamp itself.
He rehired a deputy fired by McDonnell for allegations of domestic violence against a fellow deputy, a move a Superior Court judge ruled was “unlawful.” He tried to roll back reforms to clamp down on abusive deputies in the county jails. He allowed the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station to plaster on its windows a logo that McDonnell had banned. It featured the name of a John Wayne movie — “Fort Apache,” which happens to be about a lonely military outpost surrounded by hostile Indians.
That was just the first few months of Villanueva’s reign.
El sheriff did follow through on promises to make deputies wear body cameras while on the job and to remove federal immigration agents from the jails. But he antagonized the activists and politicians who had fought for years for those reforms.
His vows to crack down on public corruption now has the state attorney general criticizing his overreach. Instead of clearing out the deputy gangs that have plagued the department for decades, Villanueva alternately claimed they didn’t exist, that he had eliminated them, or that calling them “gangs” was racist.
His wars against the media — especially my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian — were a waste of time. His belittling of public officials who opposed him — especially the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, whom he went after with misogynistic language and morning raids — was unfounded. All these moves — and many, many more — eroded the coalition that took him to victory in 2018.
The man who portrayed himself as a lone warrior in a worn Stetson battling an entrenched, evil establishment ended up alone.
It didn’t have to be this way, Alex.
The one time I sat down with you for an in-depth conversation, I found a guy smarter than the meathead thug that opponents made you out to be.
In a back room at the Hall of Justice this past March, your take on why Latinos support law enforcement more than other groups was spot on. Your analysis of the bureaucracy that plagues L.A.’s homelessness crisis was true. I saw a glimpse of the reformer that could’ve been.
“By doing what I’m doing, I’m acting on principle and I’m acting on fact,” you told me. “What I’m not doing is [a] calculated ‘Let me see which way the political winds are blowing.’”
For the last year, Alex Villanueva and I had dropped diss tracks on each other in public, online and in print. I figured a lunchtime stroll — the wannabe cowboy and the scribbling son of one — would be a fitting next round.
But that’s what you did. By the time we talked, you had forsaken the progressivism that you once espoused in favor of appearances on Fox News and fulminations against “woke” culture.
What I expected to be a simple conversation about Latinos and law enforcement suddenly turned into a Rorschach test of your worldview. Racist dog whistles. Anger at the very activists who made your election possible. Decades-old slights that had nothing to do with modern-day Los Angeles.
When people deride you to me as a Trump-like clown, Alex, I always correct them and say you are a Nixonian tragedy. The two of you were working-class kids with anti-elite chips on your shoulders that motivated you to pull off historic upsets. Each of you had a concern for the common person that your opponents will never fully grasp.
But once each of you assumed power, Alex, those chips that were once so crucial to success blinded each of you to the arrogance and paranoia that ended your careers.
The last thing you told me during our springtime conversation was, “Well, hopefully you have a lot more information than you had before.”
I do — more than I could’ve ever imagined.
You had one final chance to redeem yourself, Alex, at the news conference where you conceded your electoral loss to Luna. You could’ve done it gracefully. Instead, it was the same pity party you’ve offered since the start of your administration.
You bragged about supposed accomplishments and claimed to have “beat back the old guard that resisted change,” then in the same breath insinuated that the old guard was a “weaponized political machine” with a “campaign of false propaganda” that torpedoed your efforts. You said “false narrative” six times. You denied that deputy gangs exist, which federal judges noted had existed decades ago. You trashed supposed enemies like the Board of Supervisors and The Times again and again.
You even plugged your new Twitter account, the one that misspells your last name because cybersquatters apparently took every possible manifestation of your name.
“For people who think we’re defeated, quite the opposite,” you said near the end, when you finally got emotional and your wife came to your side with a hug and the words, “You’ve got this.”
You never did.
Peace out, Alex. You should’ve paid closer attention to one of your reelection slogans: “Bring back the dream.”
What a Freudian slip. You were yearning for what could’ve been.
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