In a race that has been as controversial as it has been close, former Long Beach police Chief Robert Luna held a solid lead Thursday in his bid to unseat Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. The incumbent, however, remains confident that he can crawl back into the contest as vote-counting continues in the coming days.
Villanueva has been responsible for a hearty share of this election season’s drama. Whether raiding County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s home, fielding multiple discrimination and retaliation allegations and lawsuits, or allegedly participating in a cabal of departmental deputy secret societies, the candidate has been unfailingly and alarmingly effective in shoving Luna into the background of a race he’s playing equal part in.
Still, despite his restrained presence in the race, Luna jumped out front quickly when early ballot results were released from Tuesday’s election. As updates trickled in throughout the evening, however, Villanueva began making some slow gains.
When semi-official results were posted early Wednesday morning, Luna had 57 percent of the vote compared to 43 percent for Villanueva, though the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office estimated on Wednesday that roughly 1 million ballots still needed to be counted. The office further estimated that there are 985,000 vote-by-mail ballots, 21,000 conditional voter-registration ballots and 300 provisional, or questioned, ballots.
The next updated vote tally is not expected to be released until Friday, and then every subsequent Tuesday and Friday until all ballots are counted—a process that could last until the end of the month.
“So far, the returns look good, and our campaign has a significant lead,” Luna said in a statement Wednesday. “And I believe that as more votes are counted in the days ahead, I’ll continue to maintain a lead in this race. L.A. County voted for change, and if I’m elected sheriff, I’ll bring new leadership, accountability, and effective strategies to reduce crime.”
Luna is looking to pull off a rare feat by unseating a sitting sheriff.
Villanueva’s victory four years ago over incumbent Jim McDonnell marked the first time in roughly a century that a sheriff had lost a re-election bid in the county. But now Villanueva finds himself in danger of meeting the same fate at the hands of Luna. The sheriff expressed confidence, however, that he would make up the deficit from early balloting as vote counting continued over the coming week.
“Let’s see what the vote says,” he told KCAL9 at his Monterey Park election night party. “I think people just want to see the things that matter to them addressed—homelessness and violent crime.”
Luna, speaking to his supporters in Long Beach Tuesday night, noted that the vote-counting will take a long time, but said he feels good about the direction of the numbers.
“As I have met so many people throughout this great county, there was one thing that was very obvious to me… people were talking about the need for change,” he said.
He said that as sheriff, he will be “accountable at the end of the day,” and will work to ensure “integrity” in the department.
The candidates ran a spirited campaign, with Luna attacking the incumbent over his caustic relationship with the county Board of Supervisors and accusing him of ignoring the issue of deputy gangs within the department. Villanueva has deflected such criticism, saying his battles with the board show he is a fierce defender of the department and its deputies, and insisting that he has gone to great lengths to attack and ban alleged deputy cliques in the agency.
“Mr. Luna, the Civilian Oversight Commission, the Board of Supervisors, they cannot wrap their minds around the idea that (on) my very first day in office, I removed the East L.A. station captain from his command because I had doubts about his ability to lead,” Villanueva said last week, responding to Luna’s latest allegation of inaction on the deputy gang issue.
The sheriff said four deputies were also fired from the East L.A. station over their actions at a much-publicized fight during a deputy gathering at Kennedy Hall. He also said he implemented the department’s first-ever policy barring “outlaw groups,” codified it in training materials and sponsored legislation to extend the policy statewide.
“There is nothing legally we can do left,” Villanueva said. “We can’t line up people, strip them down and fire people with tattoos, as some people have literally suggested. So when my opponent falsely asserts that nothing has been done, he’s just repeating the narrative politically driven by the Oversight Commission that works for the board.”
Luna insisted last week that deputy gangs remain an issue, citing “men and women from the sheriff’s department who have come forward, good men and women who want this rooted out.”
He added, “So how do employees feel about coming forward and reporting misconduct when they know you have a sheriff that’s going to look the other way? That’s been proven time and time again.”
Villanueva’s victory four years ago came with strong backing from reform-minded community groups and Democrats. But over the past four years, Villanueva’s support among those groups has waned as he repeatedly clashed with the Democrat-dominated Board of Supervisors over funding and policy matters. He has also repeatedly defied subpoenas to appear before the Civilian Oversight Commission and refused to enforce the county’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate among his deputies and department employees.
Villanueva’s campaign insists he has worked to restore public trust in the sheriff’s department, pointing to the rollout of body-worn cameras and boosting minimum requirements for new deputies. The campaign also boasts the agency is “the most diverse in the nation.”
“In his next term, Sheriff Villanueva will work to reduce violent crime, compassionately clean up homeless encampments and hold public officials accountable for their actions,” according to his campaign.
Speaking to his supporters after the June primary, Villanueva said he is “focusing on what matters to people—homelessness and violent crime. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, because it’s the right thing to do. If that means I have to battle the Board of Supervisors, so be it.”
Luna has argued during the campaign that the sheriff’s department is being “mismanaged” by Villanueva and said he will work to restore trust in the agency. He also touted his position as an outsider with no connections to the sheriff’s department.
“Growing up in East Los Angeles, patrolled by the sheriff’s department, opened my eyes to examples of both good and bad policing, and inspired my 36-year career in law enforcement,” Luna said in a candidate statement.
He said he will work to “modernize” the sheriff’s department and its jail system and improve the mental well-being of deputies and employees.
City New Service contributed to this report.