On a Scale of 1 to 10, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Race Is at 13

Cityside Column: The presence of unpredictable Alex Villanueva makes the showdown against Robert Luna one for the ages

Election season makes people grumble, for obvious reasons. It feels like we vote too frequently, ballot propositions can get confusing, and even when leadership changes, it often seems like livability does not. For many, the Nov. 8 election presents yet another in a line of unspectacular choices.

Any Los Angeles County resident who feels that way should perk up. While some contests on the ballot may indeed induce slumber, Angelenos have one of the greatest races in decades right in front of them: It’s the contest for sheriff, with the tornado of an incumbent Alex Villanueva seeking a second term against retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. The combination of headlines, invective, and the sheer importance of the post—as the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department provides services to more than 3 million county residents, patrols over 3,000 square miles and operates huge jails—makes this one critical. 

And, if you were to rank the race on a scale of 1 to 10 for entertainment value, this one is at 13.

The excitement stems primarily from the presence of the unpredictable Villanueva. This is the guy who, two months before election day, saw his deputies search the home of County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, a political foe. Villanueva claimed he had recused himself from the investigation, then gave an interview about it—and I swear, I’m not making this up—from a bar.

I follow this stuff closely, but even after months of campaigning I have relatively little sense of what Luna would provide, and I know I’m not the only one. Rather, this race is Triple A: All About Alex.

Villanueva, as a reminder, was a department veteran at the mid-level rank of lieutenant when he upset incumbent Jim McDonnell in 2018. That race was also fascinating, and the result largely stemmed from Villanueva brilliantly positioning himself as a progressive Democrat out to reform a historically troubled department. McDonnell, who had actually been widely praised during his term, underestimated his competitor and got bounced. But instead of leaning left, a victorious Villanueva displayed an authoritarian streak. He has since been compared to Donald Trump; he is adored by many conservatives. Back in April, Media Matters reported that Villanueva had appeared on Fox News at least 32 times.

There’s nothing wrong with picking your political lane, but Villanueva is driving down one more appropriate for central Texas than progressive Los Angeles. His public clashes, bad press and lawsuit judgments, including a $30 million ruling against the county after sheriff’s deputies shared photos taken of the wreckage of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash, walloped him in the June primary when he got the support of just 30.7 percent of voters. A re-election bid often serves as a referendum on a pol’s time in office, and almost seven of every 10 Angelenos opted for any other candidate.

Luna, despite limited money and name recognition, finished second with 25.9 percent in the nine-person field, his ascent fueled in part by an L.A. Times endorsement. All five supervisors are now backing him, as is the L.A. County Democratic Party and the other seven felled first-round candidates. Even if the guy who ran the Long Beach PD for seven years is still something of an unknown, the greater known is that he is not Villanueva.

All that set the stage for a Sept. 20 debate between the two at the Skirball Cultural Center. If you haven’t watched it, check it outit is full of never-saw-that-coming turns, raucous moments and fiery exchanges. It is the Mad Max: Fury Road of political forums, missing only that flamethrower guitar guy. I just watched it again for the second time (the debate, not Fury Road), because I’m that level of political nerd.

It starts off tame, but that’s just because there are introductions and Luna is the first to speak, assessing the department with a bland but clear, “At the end of the day we absolutely need change.”

Then Villanueva gets his question, and it takes him just 40 seconds to call Luna a “puppet” of the board of supervisors. By the time the show ends he’ll have ripped out that accusation again.

Villanueva spends as much or more time lambasting the supervisors, the media, and District Attorney George Gascón as he does Luna. In the process, the sheriff seeks to paint a picture of himself as a lone freedom fighter kicking against an overbearing system, never acknowledging that it’s his actions and combative approach that put him on the outs in the first place.

Some exchanges at this debate are simply bizarre. Villanueva, at one point, details every school his wife attended, seemingly an effort to question his competitor’s community roots. Later, separate attacks seek to insinuate that Luna was a member of a law enforcement gang and that he killed someone while on duty. Luna bats aside the first assertion by saying he helped eradicate a clique in the Long Beach Police Department, and then somberly describes how, during a raid, his partner fired a weapon and a suspect died.

“He just said I killed somebody. He needs to look at the reports again,” Luna tells moderator Elex Michaelson of Fox 11 News. “I’m sitting up here shocked that the sheriff of L.A. County is saying this publicly, and his information is flawed.”

The rhetoric has not let up since, including on social media. The two also continue to battle for campaign dollars. According to public documents, through Sept. 24 Villanueva raised nearly $1.4 million, while Luna has secured about $610,000.

That’s a sizable advantage for Villanueva, though both will have a hard time connecting with voters across the breadth of Los Angeles—in the primary 1.5 million county residents cast ballots, and the November turnout will likely be larger. A massive war chest is required to really influence the electorate.

The effort will remain fierce through election day. Until then, enjoy the show.

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