Why the Race for L.A. County Sheriff Is One to Watch in the Lead-Up to 2022

Early flare-ups between Sheriff Alex Villanueva and former chief Eli Vera have grabbed attention, but there’s a lot more to keep an eye on in the coming months

Earlier in September, as California was hitting a fever pitch over the recall election, Eli Vera called reporters to the Hall of Justice in downtown. There, the man who hopes to be the next L.A. County Sheriff held a press conference to announce that his challenge to sitting Sheriff Alex Villanueva was not met with a hearty, “Good luck sir! And may the best man or woman be chosen to serve the citizenry!” Instead, Vera said he got a spoonful of politically driven retaliation, asserting that his boss had demoted him, yanking his rank from chief to commander.

The demotion was widely reported, and news stories included confirmation from Villanueva’s office that Vera indeed has been booted from his post atop the LASD’s Technology and Support Division. His new gig is with the seemingly less prestigious Court Services Division.

With the recall now completed and attention turning to the next round of elections in June 2022, the demotion begs a question: Is anyone actually surprised? Heck, it would have been more headline-worthy if thin-skinned Villanueva had chosen not to kick his foe a few pegs down the LASD ladder. In fact, one could make the case that the biggest “news” is that Villanueva only did this the other week, and not the precise moment in April when Vera announced that he was coming for the king.

Villanueva demoting Vera was as predictable as saying the sun will rise tomorrow or USC will lose a football game in which it’s heavily favored. About 36 percent of me believes that sometime in the past month Villanueva also tried to demote another challenger, Cecil Rhambo, but stopped only when a member of his inner circle finally worked up the courage to tell him that Rhambo no longer works for the sheriff’s department, and instead is chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police.

alex villanueva
Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Vera seemed bothered by the demotion, saying that when Lee Baca ran against Sheriff Sherman Block, the challenger didn’t lose his job. This may be the case, but that election took place in the last millennium, and just mentioning the race cracks opens all kinds of worm cans that no one seeking to be sheriff wants to be near—first off, Block would die before election day after suffering a brain aneurism. Further, Baca, who would beat the dead guy and go on to serve 16 years, is now no longer sending guys to prison, but is in prison, after being convicted on federal charges of trying to block an FBI investigation into inmate abuses in the county jail system.

The Vera-Villanueva spat is the kind of confrontation that will make the sheriff’s race the second-most interesting and fierce battle on the local ballot, trailing only the mayoral contest. In addition to Vera and Rhambo, five other people are trying to unseat Villanueva from his spot atop the department with almost 10,000 sworn deputies; the lineup includes Eric Strong, an LASD lieutenant with nearly three decades of law enforcement service; and former Sheriff’s Department Capt. Matt Rodriguez, a self-styled “law enforcement and security specialist.” Others wanting the gig are Britta Steinbrenner, April Saucedo Hood, and Enrique Del Real.

As the campaign moves forward, there will be fires all around, many of them sparked by controversial deputy cliques—some observers label them gangs—that pervade the department. The subject, which seems to flare up every few months, ignited again in recent weeks, when Rand released a long-awaited report on what it termed “deputy subgroups,” finding that about one-third of department personnel who participated in the study had been invited to join one at some time. The groups, which have monikers such as the Banditos, the Executioners, the Vikings, and the Jump-Out Boys, have been accused of perpetrating rampant violence. Defenders say they are akin to frats, albeit ones where members often sport matching tattoos.

Villanueva maintains he is pushing reform, a claim that has caused more than a few observers to raise their eyebrows. The last time reform in the department was taken seriously by community leaders was when Jim McDonnell was sheriff, but that ended abruptly in 2018 after Villanueva upset him in the election. During that race, Villanueva positioned himself as the progressive candidate and the darling of the Democratic party.

That is an especially fun fact, because during the recall Villanueva shared a picture on social media of himself posing with conservative, now-foiled Republican gubernatorial hopeful Larry Elder. In June, the L.A. County Democratic Party called on Villanueva to resign.

Vera, like every other challenger, is seeking to cast himself as an alternative to Villanueva, and present himself as a figure who will operate with transparency and work in tandem with the County Board of Supervisors, the powerful panel that Villanueva seems to enjoy thumbing his nose at. Yet in the not-too distant past, Vera was cozy with the guy he is now trying to take down. Villanueva promoted Vera to chief, and in 2019 Vera was part of a panel that recommended fired deputy Carl Mandoyan be rehired. McDonnell had supported the firing following an investigation into alleged domestic abuse and stalking. Yet Villanueva wanted Mandoyan back on the force.

When Vera first declared his candidacy he sought to distance himself from his role on the panel. At the recent press conference, it was more about distancing himself from Villanueva.

The race will be fascinating. Villanueva adroitly identified a lane to victory in his 2018 campaign, and for all the current controversy he can’t be dismissed. He is currently pitching himself as the only person willing to do the hard work to address homelessness, a key topic for county voters.

The competitors, Vera included, will need to claim their own lanes. In the coming months, expect many more incendiary announcements and accusations. After all, there is no longer a recall sucking up all the air in the electoral room.

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