Sheriff Villanueva moved to the right. A weak election showing now makes him vulnerable

As Los Angeles County Sheriff, Alex Villanueva has veered to the right, becoming a Fox News regular and denouncing “wokeism.”

He has flouted conventional rules, sniffed at a civilian oversight commission and donned a cowboy hat to address homelessness at another police department’s precinct.

But even at a moment when fears of crime and disorder run high, Villanueva’s audacity hasn’t translated into overwhelming support, leaving him vulnerable to defeat in a November runoff.

Facing a strong Democratic electorate in Tuesday’s primary, early results showed he garnered about 34% of the vote, with eight challengers dividing the other 66%.

Four years ago, as a little-known retired lieutenant, Villanueva angered the acting sheriff — a feat not accomplished in more than a century.

Now he is trying to avert the same fate.

His likely opponent is retired Long Beach Police Commissioner Robert Luna, who came second with about 25% of the vote. A spokesman for the LA County Registrar-Recorder said the results would be updated Friday.

Local Democratic officials felt betrayed by Villanueva’s conservative turn, but had not rallied around any of his opponents. In a two-man contest, the party — and anti-Villanueva voters — could rally around Luna.

Luna registered as a Democrat in 2020, according to voter rolls, having previously registered in 2018 with no party preference. Before that, he was registered as a Republican. Villanueva is a registered Democrat.

“There’s a lot of reservations that people have about him, and those reservations met with resistance — and that probably set him a kind of elementary school cap,” said Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA Villanueva.

Given the low turnout — just over 14% in LA County on Wednesday — the primary results aren’t necessarily a referendum on Villanueva’s shift to the right, Sonenshein said, with November being “almost like a snap election.”

“November is really going to be like taking a deck and then adding three times as many cards with each shuffle,” Sonenshein said.

Villanueva’s incumbent status could work in his favor with the broader mass of voters likely to turn up for the general election, said Frank Zerunyan, a USC professor of governance practice.

Villanueva campaign manager Javier Gonzalez said he felt the sheriff should have won outright Tuesday. However, Gonzalez acknowledged that the campaign’s brazen rhetoric may have put voters off.

Gonzalez has taken to social media to call Times columnist Gustavo Arellano an “emasculated puppet Latino” and clashed with critics and activists on Twitter.

“Some of the things we need to work on are, first, showing people Luna’s record, and second, maybe really adjusting our approach a bit — growing up a bit,” he said. “At my end. I don’t want to expect the sheriff to do that.”

In Tuesday’s primary, Villanueva earned the lowest percentage by an incumbent sheriff in at least a century.

In 2018, then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell garnered 48% of the vote in the primary, a few percentage points short of the simple majority he needed to avoid a runoff he lost to Villanueva.

The LA County Democratic Party machinery played a large part in Villanueva’s disgruntled victory over McDonnell, with many liberals rallying around Villanueva and his promises to protect immigrants.

After taking office, Democrats were quick to become disillusioned with his actions, beginning with his reinstatement of an MP who had been fired over allegations of domestic violence and dishonesty, calling for his resignation last year.

He has been criticized for what observers describe as a weak response to gang-like groups of MPs accused of partying 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. More recently, he was accused by top commanders of covering up an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes.

Villanueva has enjoyed publicly chastising locally elected Democrats – whom he has accused of worshiping “at the altar of Wokeism” – for what he sees as their clumsy handling of the local homelessness crisis. And he has dramatically increased the number of permits allowing people to carry concealed weapons.

County Democratic Party leader Mark Gonzalez said he believed many Democrats would rally to support Luna if they backed him in the primary.

“All the other candidates were running on a platform that was basically anti-Alex,” Gonzalez said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people lined up behind Chief Luna.”

He said Villanueva’s lackluster performance in the primary, as well as the gap between Luna and the other challengers, was unexpected.

Luna became Long Beach’s first Latino police chief, succeeding McDonnell, who was elected sheriff in 2014. Luna, who grew up in East LA, joined the Long Beach Police Department at age 18 and throughout his 36-year career there, held every rank.

“Voters are smart, voters are researching and looking for change,” Gonzalez said. “It’s no longer about bringing reforms to the department that Alex was in charge of [in 2018], but about courtesy and the issue of public safety. That’s what people have on their minds right now.”

Cynthia Hart, a secretary for the Culver City Democratic Club, had Lt. Supporting LA County Sheriff Eric Strong, the most forward-thinking candidate among the challengers, who ranks third with about 13% of the vote. She said on Wednesday that she would shift her support to Luna.

“Although I still think Eric Strong would have been a lot better than Villanueva, I think Robert Luna would be an improvement,” she said. “I expect Luna to stop the damage. He’s not going to make things worse.”

Hart, who said she felt betrayed by Villanueva’s rightward move since he became sheriff, has high hopes for Luna should he win in November.

“He could restore trust in the community, improve communication, he could try to fix this problem with the surrogate gangs,” she said. “I want him to do what Villanueva said, which is due process for everyone so everyone is treated fairly.”

Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats, which backed Luna before the primary, called Luna’s performance Tuesday “really impressive.”

Johnson said Wednesday morning that this bodes well for his chances in the runoff.

“I think a lot of people had their jaws dropped when the first numbers came out last night,” he said, warning that there is still work to be done for the progressives who want Villanueva ousted.

At Villanueva’s election observation party Tuesday night in east LA, Rudy Lopez listed a number of reasons why he supports Villanueva — he’s approachable, a family man and “someone who understands our needs.”

Lopez said the sheriff’s critics based their opinions on “bad publicity” and ignored his work in the community.

He dismissed the former Long Beach police chief as an outsider who didn’t know the communities of East LA

“We don’t see Luna in a lot of communities,” Lopez said. “We know (Villanueva).”

Times contributor Libor Jany contributed to this report. Sheriff Villanueva moved to the right. A weak election showing now makes him vulnerable

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