Opinion: The right is running against L.A., with an assist from Sheriff Villanueva

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva during a news conference on March 29.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, shown at a news conference on March 29, is up for reelection.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, April 23, 2022. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

We’re getting close enough to the June 7 primary in Los Angeles and the rest of California, so it’s time to take the election seriously. The Times’ Opinion journalists are doing just that, with editorial endorsements already in the races for state controller (Lanhee Chen) and city controller (Kenneth Mejia), and examinations of a billionaire candidate’s impact on the L.A. mayor’s race by the editorial board, op-ed columnists and our readers in letters to the editor.

Who’s not taking the election seriously — or at least not acting like it — is one of the most important incumbents on the local ballot: Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who followed up his bizarre letter declining to participate in The Times endorsement process, which was sent during his interview with the editorial board, with a surrealist campaign ad purporting to juxtapose the whimsy of easy L.A. living with the bogeymen of homelessness and crime.


Someone really ought to do something about those problems. Tell me again, who’s the sheriff nowadays?

While Villanueva’s ad might come across as self-defeating, it fits in nicely with the broader conservative campaign to portray the coastal “woke” cities as bastions of chaos and filth. In the coldest political way possible, this strategy might make sense for a suburban or rural member of Congress running as a bulwark against encroaching left-wing dogma; for Villanueva, the incumbent sheriff who needs our votes, it’s utterly counterproductive.

Which raises another possibility: Perhaps all Villanueva wants to do is play to the national audience. Perhaps, like other far-right elected officials who fell out of the favor of their constituencies, this is an audition for a talking-head gig at a place like Fox News, whose highest-rated host has invited our sheriff on the air to whine about how hard his job is.

In fact, that host has gotten in on the game too. Bear in mind that this man, Tucker Carlson, has made provably false claims about COVID-19 vaccines and recklessly stoked paranoia over a “patriot purge”; he’s also talking about testicle tanning, so, yeah. His latest project on Fox Nation casts Los Angeles as the hellscape portrayed by Villanueva, and guess what — Villanueva has a starring role in Carlson’s agitprop.

I’ll give this to Carlson: The man knows how to make propaganda. He provides a target for viewers’ outrage by villainizing one person in particular, L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, and uses dog-whistle terms such as “civilizational suicide,” which ought to ring frighteningly familiar to anyone who has studied the rise of past authoritarian figures. He also lies, saying that in 2020, crime in Los Angeles “reached a level and an intensity that virtually no one who lives there had ever seen.” This is a risible statement to anyone who remembers 1992 — and sadly, a falsehood parroted by our billionaire mayoral front-runner, Rick Caruso.

But it isn’t enough merely to say crime and homelessness and inequality are rising and we should deal with them, as advocates and public servants quietly are. Rather, a good propagandist redirects the public’s anxieties and exaggerated fears onto an enemy, and people such as Carlson and Villanueva have found a new one: Los Angeles.


It’s safe to say this will get worse as the Nov. 6 midterm nears, so what should we do when confronted with this dangerous nonsense? I’ll take a page from Michigan lawmaker Mallory McMorrow, who pointedly rose to her own defense on the state Senate floor after a Republican colleague accused her of wanting to “sexualize” kindergarteners, the kind of slander that honest public officials have been groomed to laugh off and quietly ignore.

We need to confront this dishonesty. I’ll do more of that here, especially as we approach the June 7 primary and Nov. 6 midterm.

Democrats can win in November by canceling student loan debt, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has a plan to do that. She talked about it with columnist Jean Guerrero: “Warren went to the University of Houston when it was $50 a semester. ‘Five zero,’ she said. Her father worked as a janitor and her mother answered telephones at Sears, but Warren could afford college as a part-time waitress. ‘That opportunity does not exist today,’ Warren told me. ‘The idea that young people today should be shackled by debt just to try to get an education so they can try to compete is fundamentally wrong.’” L.A. Times

If you’re getting annoyed by Rick Caruso, you’re not alone. The billionaire developer and would-be mayor of Los Angeles is tapping his vast fortune to put his face and message on seemingly every TV and radio ad in the area, and columnist Nicholas Goldberg is already tired of it. Problem is, the bottomless spending works, as evidenced by Caruso’s rise in the polls and the fact that candidates who outspend their opponents almost always win. Goldberg notes that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision gets much of the blame for this, but you have to go all the way back to 1976 to find the case that truly allowed the rich to buy their way into elected office. L.A. Times

Place this cycling tragedy: A bicyclist on just another normal ride is struck and killed by a driver. Readers in Los Angeles might think of Andrew Jelmert, who died last week in Griffith Park after an allegedly drunk motorist ran into him. Readers in Northern California might think of someone different, a testament to the frequency of needless death on our roads: In Mountain View, 13-year-old Andre Retana was run over by a truck trying to turn right. Farhad Manjoo says it’s wrong to call these sorts of tragedies “accidents,” since the circumstances that led to them — roads and systems that routinely put cyclists and pedestrians in peril — are very much intentional. New York Times

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Confused about the second COVID booster? So are some of the experts. Editorial writer Karin Klein weighs in on the recommendation that certain people get their fourth COVID-19 shot: “Vaccine resisters have accused the federal government of pushing COVID-19 shots without ensuring that the benefits outweigh the risks. But what about when one of the people raising questions about the latest round of jabs is Paul A. Offit, arguably the most prominent supporter of vaccines in the nation, a vocal force against people who spread silly myths about vaccination and himself the developer of a vaccine against rotavirus. Well, then you listen more closely.” L.A. Times

What do the “realists” have to say about Ukraine now? Realists — who assert that states act not in good or bad ways, but only in their rational self-interest — tend to confuse the interests of rulers with those of the ruled, says Jonah Goldberg. In the Ukraine war, where one side is clearly morally wrong, can realists really make the claim that Russia invaded and brutalized its neighbor for some rational end, rather than because of the delusions and historical grievances of Vladimir Putin? L.A. Times

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