Down Goes Villanueva: The Tumultuous LA Sheriff Goes Down to Resounding and Rebuking Defeat

Los Angeles County Alex Sheriff Villanueva

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Los Angeles, CA – In what was one of the biggest ballot victories for progressives, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva went down to a resounding defeat after a single, tumultuous term in office.

With the large lead by little-known retired police chief Robert Luna holding up, Villanueva conceded the race Tuesday.

“I want to wish the incoming sheriff well,” Villanueva said at the end of a rambling concession speech. “The safety of the community depends on him succeeding.”

As the LA Times put it on Tuesday, “The results were a resounding rebuke of Villanueva’s four chaotic years in office — a tenure during which he morphed from an upstart candidate buoyed by the support of progressive voters into a conservative, combative lawman who clashed endlessly with elected officials and others who oversee him and the department.”

The LA Times ran an editorial, noting, “It was about incumbent Alex Villanueva, a man who in his tumultuous four years as leader of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department has oscillated between goofy caricature and dangerous loose cannon.

“In an era of pandemic lockdowns, racial justice protests, increasing violence and attacks against democracy, precisely when Los Angeles County most needed a mature and reassuring public safety official, Villanueva was just another barrel of gasoline on a smoldering fire. His tenure is a virtual how-not-to handbook for leadership.”

As Bolts put it, “Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has made a national name for himself as a swaggering, autocratic leader hostile to any challenge, however minor, to his power. He has alternately denied the existence of the murderous deputy gangs that plague his department, and said he’s neutralized them. Under Villanueva, the department covered up at least one incident of deputy violence against someone in custody. He has defied subpoenas from an oversight commission established by LA County’s governing body, the five-member Board of Supervisors. He has bullied and maligned those who question his authority: suggesting that the supervisors, all women, needed to be “taken to the shed and they need to be beat down so they start doing their job”; calling LA County’s Inspector General a Holocaust denier; and threatening to use the power of his agency to investigate a LA Times reporter assigned to cover his department. Most gravely, Villanueva has presided over a force that has killed dozens of civilians, and a jail system, the largest in the county, in which 55 people alone died in 2021. An exhaustive list of scandals and abuses could fill a book.”

Anne Irwin, Founder and Executive Director of Smart Justice California, which played a leading role in the efforts to unseat Villanueva in both the June primary and November runoff election, issued a statement noting, “Angelenos soundly rejected the culture of violence, unconstitutional policing, impunity, and intimidation that Sheriff Alex Villanueva has fomented over the past few years. Instead, voters overwhelmingly embraced reform candidate Robert Luna.”

She continued, “Villanueva’s dramatic defeat is not only a stinging rebuke of a law enforcement officer who viewed himself as above the law, but also a rebuke of the Trumpian, ‘law-and-order’ politics he sought to weaponize against widely-supported justice reforms. “

Irwin concluded, “Although the fear-mongering rhetoric on crime reached a fever pitch in LA and other state and national races in the months leading up to the election, the draconian anti-reform wave that Villanueva and other candidates were hoping to ride never materialized. On the contrary, voter support for law enforcement accountability and for reimagining our criminal legal system continues – and it is on full display in Los Angeles.”

For his part, Luna said in a statement that his victory signaled “a clear mandate to bring new leadership and accountability to the Sheriff’s Department.

“I look forward to working with the talented and courageous sworn and professional staff of the Sheriff’s Department who are dedicated to keeping our communities safe,” he said.

The LA Times breathed a sigh of relief noting, “Candidates with more popular appeal and more talent than Villanueva could pose an even more serious danger, and any number of charlatans better attuned to Los Angeles might have won reelection. Villanueva’s ineptitude helped the county dodge a bullet.”

On the other hand, “Luna’s talent is of a different nature. As an appointed police chief in Long Beach, he’s used to working with others to achieve common public safety goals, and as a former police officer he respects a chain of command.”

However, they warn, “But L.A. County residents should harbor no illusions that, with Luna in and Villanueva gone, everything at the Sheriff’s Department will now neatly fall into place. Luna will have a bigger task than just leading the department. He must rescue it, perhaps even reinvent it.”

They conclude, “Luna has done L.A. County a great public service by challenging Villanueva. He will need to call on all his leadership skills and experience to navigate the difficult tasks ahead.”


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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