Column: This time, election night is a real party pooper for L.A. County Sheriff

Modelos and margaritas flowed. Dance music blared. Bruschetta and cheeseburgers disappeared. The party at Cities Restaurant in east Los Angeles was already in full swing.

In 2018, this two-story bar on Cesar Chavez Avenue was the setting for history. On election night in November of that year, Alex Villanueva became Los Angeles County sheriff after defeating Jim McDonnell – the first time a challenger had defeated a living incumbent in over a century.

Four years later, over 200 people flocked to the cities in anticipation of another historic night. What else could the result be? The left was in retreat in deep blue California, they thought.

In San Francisco, voters overwhelmingly remembered the progressive Dist. atty Chesa Boudin. In Los Angeles, Dulce Vasquez and Eunisses Hernandez, young Latinas who preached a Defund the Police message during their city council elections, lost. The Los Angeles Dist. atty George Gascón was in a good position to collect the required number of signatures to qualify.

When Villanueva finally got through a back door to his victory feast, the crowd went wild. Everyone looked dressed as if they were attending a 1987 class reunion at Schurr High in Montebello—Tommy Bahama shirts and plaid long-sleeved shirts for men, simple dresses and skirt-top combos for women. Everyone devoured strawberry shortcake topped with white icing and green and white sprinkles, the colors of the Villanueva campaign.

Her husband shook hands, posed for photos, then headed upstairs to the VIP lounge where he mingled with friends and family to await the evening’s early election results. About 10 minutes later, the happy mood in the room faded as people opened their smartphones to visit the Los Angeles County Voter Registry website.

In first place was Villanueva with 30.4%. Second was former Long Beach Police Commissioner Robert Luna with 28%. Six other challengers received the remaining votes.

As more votes are counted, those percentages will change, but they probably won’t: the sheriff will be forced into a runoff. At that point, there’s a decent chance voters will let him walk away.

Villanueva faces Luna in November, despite the sheriff raising more than three times as much as Luna in campaign funds, almost outperforming him 6-1. Though Villanueva has abandoned the progressive platform that secured his excitement in 2018 — thrashing ICE out LA County jails, cracking down on wage theft, leaning on workers and liberal activists for support — for a scorched-earth campaign that seeks to Blaming all the ills of society on the “awakened left” and the democratic politicians of the region, a party that Villanueva happens to belong to.

At a time when poll after poll shows that crime and homelessness — two problems Villanueva claims only he can truly solve — are on every voter’s mind.

The crowd at the sheriff’s soiree murmured and drank and waited.

This party didn’t go as planned.

The sheriff didn’t come down for a while. As he did so, his smile now seemed fake, like the grin on a Mr. Potato Head.

He shook more hands, posed for more photos, barely acknowledged the Puerto Rican flags someone had unfurled, and headed back upstairs. He did this a few more times, each session shorter than the last. At one point, the televisions behind the bar showed a picture of Luna while Villanueva looked on helplessly.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva watches election coverage on television during a late night meeting at Cities Restaurant in East Los Angeles.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Moses Castillo, a retired Los Angeles police detective who runs an Instagram account praising Villanueva and belittling his opponents — including me — has been subdued. “I didn’t expect Luna to be so high,” he told his audience in a live stream.

Every incumbent sheriff in what is now Los Angeles County that has faced a runoff election has lost — McDonnell four years earlier and Sherman Block in 1998, who was scheduled to be beaten to Lee Baca but died just four days before Election Day.

Finally, at around 10 a.m., Villanueva took the stage to give a speech. His favorite song: “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty.

But the sheriff somehow did.

He started with a jab at Boudin and then said, “George Gascón, you’re next!” cheering. It was red meat for his followers, but they wanted reassurance that the disastrous results before them could not possibly be true.

“It’s kind of hard to see where [the votes] go”, finally Villanueva. “But we’re up, and we’re going to stay.”

Then he started complaining. His overwhelming lead that night was not due to his scandals, his brusque attitude, his paranoid and petty approach to perceived enemies like my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian, who Villanueva had hinted at during a press conference earlier this year that she was part of a criminal leak investigation and whom the campaign refused entry earlier in the day because they wanted to maintain a “positive environment”.

nope It was someone else’s fault.

He said the sheriff’s race was like an “eight-on-one basketball game” with opponents funded by “opportunists” who wanted to torpedo his regime.

You know, this insidious process called democracy.

He railed against the “political establishment” and the LA County Board of Supervisors and “cancel culture” and “fake media” and the people who “haul[ged] me less than 50% of the votes and thus denied him a clear victory.

He vowed to win in November, although his detractors – who have never managed to rally around a single challenger – will likely unite behind Luna by that point, like the Avengers chasing Thanos.

“If truth and God are on your side, we will win,” the sheriff said. “We work with reality, with facts and with evidence.”

“What did Mr. T say?” Villanueva suddenly blurted out, to everyone’s confusion. “I pity the fools.”

The sheriff finished and headed for the stairs. From the speakers, Petty whimpered, “Hey, baby! There is no easy way out.”

In earnest.

People bravely tried out chants of “Four Years to Go!” and “Villa-nue-va!” but they quickly dried up. The crowd, who had previously wanted some time with him, was now just large enough to form a cover band playing sad country songs.

Two volunteers prevented me and a KPCC reporter from approaching the sheriff when he was making comments to TV stations. When it became clear that we couldn’t speak to him at that point, I shouted out my question:

If Los Angeles was so scared of crime, why couldn’t Villanueva break 50% of the vote?

He halted his ascent as if thinking of an answer. But Villanueva kept going up.

I repeated my question. “Because Gascón,” hissed one of the volunteer bouncers, a young woman who had hitherto been friendly to me and now refused to give her name.

I asked her to explain how the prosecution had caused Villanueva’s overwhelming night.

“Because he lets people out,” she replied. When I pointed out that prosecutors weren’t running against Villanueva, the volunteer didn’t respond. Instead, she waved someone up and resumed her stance, arms crossed.

By the end of the night, Villanueva had slightly increased his lead over Luna. But even then, it was the lowest percentage an incumbent sheriff had received in a primary in at least a century.

And so the sheriff would do what no sitting LA sheriff ever wants to do – get caught in a risky runoff.

It turned out that the Cities Restaurant had hosted history again. Just not the kind Villanueva had hoped for.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-08/alex-villanueva-sheriff-runoff-election Column: This time, election night is a real party pooper for L.A. County Sheriff

Alley Einstein

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