Competitors Are Lining Up to Unseat L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva

The controversy-prone lawman is facing an election battle next year—including from inside his own department

On Wednesday morning, as part of his weekly online briefing/press conference, Sheriff Alex Villanueva fielded a two-part question. The first section asked whether he will run for re-election, given the recent announcements of rivals entering the 2022 race. The second part concerned his relationship with the Board of Supervisors.

The first-term sheriff started in a concise manner, stating, “Yes, I am running for re-election, and of course it’s a democratic country and people will run against me, but I think that’s a positive thing.”

The second section prompted Villanueva to pinball wildly, and after touching on violent crime, homelessness, and illegal marijuana grows, he began lambasting the supes, with whom he has clashed repeatedly since he was elected in 2018.

“I’m going to beat up the board when they do some things that are wrong or dumb,” Villanueva said. He soon added, “We need to encourage elected officials to act responsibly; we’ll support them. But at the same time, when they’re doing something that is inappropriate, I would also call them out on that.

“And notice how everyone loves to do that to me, so it works both ways.”

If it was unnecessarily combative, well, a.) that’s so Villanueva, and b.) it may be a preview of what is to come, for after being the guy who rocketed from out of nowhere to topple an incumbent sheriff three years ago, Villanueva is trying to prevent the same fate from befalling him. Just this week Cecil Rhambo, the police chief of LAX and a former assistant sheriff, announced his candidacy for the post. He becomes the second experienced figure to mount a challenge; in April, Eliezer Vera, an LASD veteran who carries the rank of chief, launched a campaign to take down his boss.

The election promises to be rollicking—in a campaign video, Rhambo asserts, “Sheriff Alex Villanueva is the Donald Trump of L.A. County”—and offers voters the opportunity to again deliver unexpected results. When the 2018 election cycle began, most observers predicted that Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was well regarded for his attempts to reform a department embroiled in controversy and scandal, would roll to re-election. Few gave much credence to Villanueva, who had never advanced beyond the mid-level rank of lieutenant.

Yet Villanueva ran a crafty campaign, and in stressing his Democratic party bona fides and appealing to a swath of Latino voters, he found a path to topple McDonnell, beating him by 140,000 votes in the runoff. It marked the first time in more than a century that a sitting L.A. County sheriff had been bounced.

Inauguration day may have been Villanueva’s high point, and calling his tenure rocky almost does a disservice to all the rocks out there. He clashed with the supervisors repeatedly over his efforts to rehire a deputy, Caren Carl Mandoyan, whom McDonnell had fired following allegations (and an investigation) of domestic abuse. Continued battles prompted the supes to seek to limit his budget.

Villanueva has also butted heads with the media, including in the wake of recent insinuations that the LASD would remove people experiencing homelessness from the Venice boardwalk if the city could not get them housed by July 4. Although no removal actions were taken, at Wednesday’s briefing he ripped into coverage by the Los Angeles Times, which on Monday published a story about Villanueva’s “shift to the right.” He called the paper the “El Segundo Times,” and charged, “All you read about the Sheriff’s Department is only what they can spin negatively and the Venice [situation] is no different than that.”

It is the supposed rightward shift that presents the most interesting election-related twist, in part because Villanueva heavily courted progressive voters three years ago. In fact his 2018 win helped set the stage for last November, when county voters replaced two-term District Attorney Jackie Lacey with reform-minded George Gascón.

Yet instead of finding an ally, Villanueva has tacked in a different direction, and now supports an effort to recall Gascón. It is not the only way he has split with local Democrats—last month the L.A. County Democratic Party took the astounding step of calling for Villanueva to resign, asserting that he has allowed deputy gangs to proliferate and has done little to halt police brutality.

The lack of support from the party brass could prove significant come election day. It is unknown at this point whether another prominent entity that previously backed him, the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (or ALADS), will support him as the campaign heats up.

The situation provides an opportunity for his challengers, and while the public knows little about either, that’s the same place Villanueva started from.

eli vera

Vera is a 32-year LASD veteran who rose steadily through the ranks; he supported Villanueva in his bid for the top job, and was rewarded when the new sheriff promoted Vera to chief. The two are no longer aligned; when Vera launched his campaign, he touted the need to “provide leadership and transparency” and “restore confidence” in the department.

Yet Vera is not without controversy, as he was on a panel—set up by Villanueva—that said Mandoyan could be rehired. He has since sought to downplay that stance.

Rhambo launched his bid Monday, releasing a video that starts with headlines about “deputy gangs” in the department and rising crime in the county, and then shows an image of Villanueva alongside Trump and imprisoned former L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca. Rhambo, who worked under Baca, says in the video, “As Assistant Sheriff, I spoke truth to power, and told Sheriff Baca, ‘Don’t F— around with the feds.”

Rhambo was born in Compton and spent 33 years in law enforcement, as well as two years as city manager of Compton. According to his website, he oversees a force with more than 1,100 sworn and civilian safety personnel at LAX and Van Nuys airports.

The primary election for sheriff is next June, and more candidates could enter. If no one secures more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers would move on to a November runoff.

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