Alex Villanueva, Robert Luna square off for L.A. County Sheriff

After a turbulent first term marred by his combativity and controversy, Alex Villanueva’s candidacy for re-election as Los Angeles County sheriff was in jeopardy Tuesday night as early results showed his opponent Robert Luna taking a sizeable lead.

With ballots from about 36% of eligible voters, Luna had won 57.4% of the vote versus Villanueva’s 42.6%. Early feedback also showed overwhelming support for Measure A, the voting measure that would give the county board of directors the power to fire an incumbent sheriff, with a 70% yes vote.

Speaking to supporters around 11pm, Luna struck a triumphant note despite the incomplete results.

“What we have now … are the first numbers — and they’re looking good,” said the retired Long Beach police chief, flanked onstage by members of his family.

Villanueva, meanwhile, was hoping for a comeback. During a brief speech, he reminded the dejected crowd that he had initially fallen behind on election night four years ago, but took the lead when the vote count was updated the next morning.

Noting that he’d gained some ground in the vote count update this time, Villanueva said the “trend is good.”

“In this first term, and hopefully not in my last term, we have done things that no one has done before,” he said. “We have told the truth to the Force.”

The end of the elections on a rainy Tuesday night ended a campaign widely seen as a referendum on Villanueva, a highly controversial figure who fought endlessly with elected officials and others with the authority to oversee him and the ministry.

When the first results were shown on a screen in a corner of a breezy venue where Luna was throwing an election night party, supporters let out excited whistles. Members of a mariachi band tuned their instruments.

Among the attendees were several of Luna’s former primary challengers, including Eric Strong, a lieutenant in the sheriff’s department who had worked to give the department more control.

Robert Luna, center, greets supporters during election night in Long Beach.

Robert Luna, center, greets supporters during election night in Long Beach.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

“Robert already has a good history of this type of oversight,” he said. “I think people are fed up with the ridiculousness of Villanueva.”

Villanueva’s meeting in Montebello was more subdued. Some in the crowd wore cowboy hats in an apparent reference to the hat Villanueva sometimes wore during the campaign.

Villanueva struggled to build momentum throughout the campaign. He came first in the June primary but won just 31% of the vote — a stunning feat for an incumbent and not nearly enough to avoid a runoff against Luna, who came second with 26% of the vote.

Polls showed Villanueva trailing Luna in a neck-and-neck race, battling high disapproval rates. Luna, meanwhile, had to work to overcome his obscurity in the county, where polls showed relatively few knew who he was.

“This had almost the character of a recall election where you don’t really know the replacement candidates very well, but you decide whether to keep the incumbent in office,” said Raphe Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA “If if he loses, I think that’s quite an impressive reprimand for his time as sheriff.”

Sonenshein added of Villanueva, “If he wins, I think it would challenge the conventional wisdom that he’s made so many enemies in LA that it’s impossible for him to be re-elected.”

Luna, who ran the Long Beach Police Department for seven years before retiring last year, positioned himself as a level-headed alternative to Villanueva during the campaign and vowed to work with the county’s elected officials, whom Villanueva has slandered. He received endorsements from all five county commissioners and was supported by the sheriff candidates he defeated in the June primary.

If Luna prevails, next month he would be at the helm of a large, unwieldy agency that patrols much of the sprawling county and has been plagued by years of instability and turnover at the top position. He would be her fourth sheriff since former sheriff Lee Baca resigned eight years ago amid a federal corruption investigation that eventually landed him in prison.

The department came under severe scrutiny because of a steady stream of scandals, many of which erupted during Villanueva’s tenure, and others older than him.

For example, there is an ongoing investigation by the attorney general’s office into possible human rights abuses by sheriff deputies and another by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission into gang-like groups of deputies operating in the department.

A victory for Villanueva would mean continuity in leadership but set the stage for a different kind of instability, as a second term would likely embolden Villanueva to continue his longstanding practice of angering people who oversee him and his budget.

The sheriff is locked in a longstanding power struggle with the county board of directors, which controls the department’s $3.8 billion budget. He’s also at war with the Oversight Commission and the district’s Inspector General – what Villanueva calls the overseers’ “attack dogs” – over their attempts to keep him in check. He has repeatedly challenged subpoenas asking him to testify under oath on various issues and matters at the department, and has been accused by critics of targeting political opponents with criminal investigations.

So contentious was the years of fighting with Villanueva that supervisors took the extraordinary step of putting the measure on Tuesday’s vote, which asked voters for the power to remove an incumbent sheriff from office if at least four of the five supervisors agree that he or she is unfit for office.

During his four years as sheriff, Villanueva lost the support of many Democratic supporters, which gave him his unlikely victory in 2018 when he shed the progressive personality he had shown voters and rebranded himself as a far more conservative law-and-order sheriff. One underpinning of his re-election campaign, he often said, is his desire to have more time to undo what he sees as the damage done by liberal elected officials’ policies, which he blames on homelessness and crime.

Many former allies, aides and supporters have fallen out with him, with some accusing him of abusing his power. And several sheriff’s employees, including some in the highest ranks, have filed lawsuits against him and the department. Last week, two black supervisors within the department, Sgt. Reginald Hoffman and Lt. John Lindsay sued the agency for racial discrimination.

Both cited an allegation made in another lawsuit by a former senior official, retired Chief LaJuana Haselrig, who is also black. As she campaigned for promotion opportunities for black MPs, Villanueva told her, “We’ve had enough of you,” her lawsuit said.

Also last week, the board of directors agreed to pay $47.6 million to resolve multiple lawsuits alleging alleged misconduct by sheriff’s deputies.

In the run-up to the election, Villanueva’s campaign wasted a lot of energy attacking Luna’s image. The campaign sent out emails targeting Luna’s Long Beach file, called him out for the department’s use of an SMS application that automatically deleted messages, and criticized him for not promoting black women in the department .

Voters trickled in and out of a voting center at Marina del Rey Middle School early Tuesday morning after the rain abated. Bob Stillman, 50, said he voted for Luna on the advice of his wife. She listened to a five-part LAist podcast about the incumbent and “wasn’t satisfied.”

Janet Green, an 84-year-old Ladera Heights resident, said she voted for Villanueva because he “makes the best decisions” and “fights the cops.” She said she appreciates his efforts to eliminate crime and homelessness, a problem she sees every day as she drives through Marina del Rey.

Homelessness also occupied Sabine Pleissner. The 46-year-old Mar Vista resident voted for Luna.

“I’m not an expert, but I get the impression the incumbent isn’t doing so well,” she said. Alex Villanueva, Robert Luna square off for L.A. County Sheriff

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