Alex Villanueva’s bid for re-election as Los Angeles County sheriff will go to a runoff in November after early poll results showed he has a healthy lead over retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.
With nearly 29% of the expected votes counted, the Associated Press predicted that Villanueva would fall short of the 50% plus one threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
According to the AP, as of early Wednesday, Luna had not secured second place in the runoff and was about 10 percentage points behind Villanueva, leaving open the possibility that another challenger could overtake him.
But the other candidates lagged behind. Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Strong was third with about half the votes from Luna, and Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo was a distant fourth.
About 200 people gathered at an east LA restaurant Tuesday night for Villanueva’s election observation party. Some wore cowboy hats, others wore green buttons with Villanueva’s picture and a campaign slogan on them. The mood turned slightly somber when the first results came in.
Villanueva took the stage for the first time just before 10pm and walked out to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”.
He began by pointing out that progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin had been removed in a snap election. “George Gascón, you’re next!” he said to thunderous applause from the crowd, referring to the Los Angeles District Attorney.
Speaking of his own race, he said: “I know we’re on top. And we expect to remain at the top.”
He added: “We can wrap this all up tonight; we’ll find out soon enough. But you know what, even if it goes a long way, I’m built for endurance.”
At Luna’s home in Long Beach, meanwhile, there was an air of moderate excitement. Friends, family and campaign workers cried out in excitement and breathed a sigh of relief.
“I feel like people want change, they want good policing,” Luna said in the dining room. “I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m honored by the support I’m getting at this point.”
Steve James, a former Long Beach police lieutenant who worked under Luna for years and was at the gathering Tuesday night, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Luna’s early appearance.
“I expected to see him in second place. I didn’t expect to see him that close to Villanueva at this point and I didn’t expect to see him that far from third place,” said James.
“Looks like he’ll be busy until November.”
Villanueva has endured a tumultuous first term marred by a series of controversies and a contentious, dysfunctional relationship with the county’s powerful board of directors, which controls its budget. And he has fought throughout his four-year tenure with the watchdogs appointed to keep him and the department in check, turning down repeated subpoenas so he can answer questions under oath on a range of subjects.
Much of the criticism has centered on what critics say Villanueva’s lackluster response to gang-like groups of MPs accused of glorifying aggressive policing and celebrating on-duty shootings. He also came under fire, among other things, for trying to cover up the fact that lawmakers had shared graphic photos of the spot where Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashed.
The upheaval followed a highly unlikely victory in 2018, when the retired sheriff’s lieutenant emerged from relative obscurity to defeat the incumbent. He was the first challenger in more than a century to oust an incumbent LA County sheriff.
To win, Villanueva presented himself to Democratic voters as a progressive reformer, convincing many of his liberal credentials by promising to limit the department’s cooperation with county jails with federal immigration officials.
He prevailed on that matter after taking office, removing Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from LA County jails, and later banning the ICE broadcast without warranties altogether. The move brought the department into line with multiple court rulings that found many such transfers unconstitutional.
But otherwise, Villanueva increasingly turned to the right to reshape himself as a conservative law-and-order sheriff. On the campaign trail and in his frequent appearances on Fox News, he has railed against the policies of the “awakened left,” which he blames for the homeless crisis and the surge in homicides and other crimes in the county. A major initiative of his was to drastically increase the number of permits issued allowing people to carry concealed weapons.
And he skillfully capitalized on voters’ frustration and anger at homelessness, portraying himself as a lone elected official with the will and know-how to do something about the problem. In a well-choreographed photo op last June, he took to the Venice Beach boardwalk to announce he was cleaning up the massive homeless camp there. While his claim was largely exaggerated, the move made an impression on voters.
Villanueva earned the support of MPs, most notably for his staunch refusal to enforce the county’s COVID-19 immunization mandate. The support helped him secure confirmation from the Assn. for the Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff’s Office, but unlike in 2018, when it spent at least $1.3 million to support him, this time the union has yet to contribute.
While all the controversy under Villanueva’s watch saw him face a crowded field of challengers, the county’s Democratic Party failed to rally behind a candidate, leaving them to fight amongst themselves for support and campaign funds.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks and longtime National Democratic donor, was a factor in the running. He has poured half a million dollars into a committee supporting Luna and said Villanueva has “created dysfunction and chaos that has endangered our public safety,” according to a fundraising appeal for Luna he sent out late last year.
Luna became the Long Beach Agency’s first Latino chief when he replaced Jim McDonnell, who was elected sheriff in 2014 and deposed by Villanueva. Luna, who grew up in East LA, joined the Long Beach Force at age 18 and has held all ranks during his 36-year career there.
The Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Assn., which represents sergeants, lieutenants and other sheriff supervisors, has spent nearly $200,000 to support Eli Vera, a retired sheriff commander who was once one of Villanueva’s close advisers .
“I wasn’t thrilled with Villanueva,” said Abbey Jaeger, a west LA resident who cast her ballot at the Felicia Mahood Multipurpose Center on Tuesday. “I’d rather give someone else a chance than move on with them.”
The 29-year-old said she spent three hours researching and filling out her ballot. As sheriff, she voted for Luna, saying he appeared trustworthy.
Several voters told the Times they skipped the sheriff’s race altogether because they felt they were under-informed about the candidates.
Casandra Del Carmen, 46, of West LA said she worked for the retired sheriff’s capt. Matt Rodriguez voted because he’s Latino and she’s heard good things about him, but said she doesn’t have time to thoroughly research every candidate.
Mitzie Parker, who lives near the LA-Marina del Rey border, said she voted for Villanueva because he sent deputies to a homeless camp in her neighborhood that was littered with trash.
“No one would do anything,” she said, referring to calls to the City Council and LAPD that were dismissed. She said she felt like she was locked in her home because she was afraid to leave.
But the sheriff’s efforts to eliminate Venice’s homelessness without coordinating with Los Angeles Police Department, who patrol the area, have deterred Jacquelyn Wilcoxen, 64.
“It was very disruptive, very macho — that’s how he comes across,” Wilcoxen said.
Wilcoxen, who voted for Villanueva in 2018 but was disappointed, said she filled out her ballot for Luna this time.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-07/2022-los-angeles-county-sheriff-election-live-results 2022 Los Angeles County sheriff election live results