New Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is testing supporters with his unorthodox approach as the region’s top cop.
Several groups or individuals who endorsed the sheriff say they are sticking by him, despite the controversies.
“By and large, people understand that the work of a reform is a long arc,” said Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats. “We’re not rushing to judgment.”
Johnson said that Villanueva won the East Area’s endorsement with his promises for more transparency, specifically related to jail oversight and the handling of immigrant detainees.
Bob Schoonover, president of Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents social workers, nurses and janitors, said workplace safety is the No. 1 issue for his members.
“Our support for Sheriff Villanueva was rooted in trust,” Schoonover said. “He said he was unafraid to tackle the problems in the jails and we are looking forward to work with him and see him follow through.”
Villanueva confounded the political establishment with his 2018 election victory over incumbent Sheriff Jim McDonnell. His slogan was “Reform, Rebuild, Restore,” and he promised sweeping changes at the Sheriff’s Department, though was short on details in his campaign speeches.
An unlikely combination of voters — a left-wing base determined to challenge President Trump’s crackdown on immigrants and sheriff’s deputies eager to overhaul the department’s hiring and promoting practices — supported his candidacy.
The political arm of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union for rank-and-file deputies, gave $1.32 million to an outside group supporting Villanueva.
Ron Hernandez, president of the union, said that instances of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-deputy violence have increased, based on what he hears from his members.
“I believe we can all agree that we’ve made significant progress in reforms since the tenure of Sheriff [Lee] Baca,” Hernandez said, referring to McDonnell’s predecessor. “We must ensure deputy safety as we continue that effort.”
As for Caren Carl Mandoyan — the deputy who was fired in 2016 by McDonnell in connection with allegations of domestic abuse and stalking, and later reinstated by Villanueva — Hernandez said the union respects the "sheriff’s right to pick his team.”
Hernandez also said he appreciates the sheriff’s “stated approach to carefully review past terminations.”
But former Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who endorsed Villanueva, criticized the sheriff’s recent remarks that called efforts by the department to reduce force against inmates a “social experiment.”
“It’s disappointing and discouraging,” said Molina, adding that rolling back reforms could bring liability to the county. “I’m looking at this and saying, what are you thinking?”
Molina said that during the campaign she heard Villanueva talk about making changes at the jails. But she thought he was referring to the patronage system that allowed some deputies to be promoted over others, she said.
Ray Leyva, Villanueva’s undersheriff, declined to comment on the criticism.
Villanueva was backed in his campaign by immigrant rights groups energized by his campaign promise to prohibit U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from entering any Sheriff’s Department facilities to conduct civil immigration actions.
The sheriff is now considering other moves, including looking at whether the Sheriff’s Department’s website should continue publishing release dates. ICE uses that information to stake out inmates as they’re released from jail and take them into federal custody.
The sheriff met recently with immigration groups to talk about his plan for the jails, said Pablo Alvarado, the co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, who was at the briefing.
“We welcome any change that provides protection for immigrants,” Alvarado said.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights, described Villanueva as a reformer and attentive to policy. But he’s not a natural politician and needs to explain to the public why he’s taking the actions he is, she said.
“Or else the support that brought him to this position could fade,” Salas said.
Several other high-profile political names who endorsed him either declined comment or didn’t return phone calls. Former state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, now running for a Los Angeles Unified school board seat, declined to weigh in on Villanueva’s actions so far.
Former state Sen. Kevin de León was another big name who endorsed Villanueva in last year’s race.