The Wacky, Raucous World of Sheriff Alex Villanueva

Cityside Column: He may be the equivalent of Bart Simpson as sheriff. He also may get four more years

As Los Angeles lurches toward election day, crime is becoming an ever bigger issue. It’s not just mayoral hopeful Rick Caruso who is pushing the message that we’re living in dangerous times and forceful leadership is required to reverse course.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose job is ostensibly to make the public feel safe, is hitting the same theme. Though Villanueva being Villanueva, “hitting” may be too light—the guy running for re-election is slamming the theme with the equivalent of a 1,200-pound sledgehammer.

Just consider the overcooked ad he dropped last week—it opens on a blond woman in jean shorts roller skating in front of a line of tents and trash, cuts to a kid in a playground sandpit happily throwing hypodermic needles in the air, and closes on a shot of a couple canoodling on a couch while burglars steal their stuff. I had to watch it five times before I noticed that one thief pointlessly fires a gun at a piece of bad art. In the four previous watches I was too focused on Villanueva intoning clichés such as, “The California dream has turned to a nightmare,” and the soundtrack of “Ave Maria” performed by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (yes, the only reason I know that is because of Shazam).

The ad is, like Villanueva himself, simultaneously hilarious and ostentatious, and I still can’t tell whether he’s in on the joke, or is so locked into his own mindset that he’s oblivious to how it resonates.

This is no surprise. The guy has been a carnival ride since the moment he was sworn in following his upset victory in November 2018, and that only came by making voters believe that he was a progressive who would reform the historically troubled department. Incumbent Jim McDonnell got bounced, and county Democrats got duped—it was the most adept act of persuasion since Harold Hill convinced River City that he could teach their tone-deaf boys to become an orchestra by adopting his fictional “think system.”

The true colors were quickly revealed. Less than a year after Villanueva took office, Los Angeles declared him “the Donald Trump of L.A. law enforcement.”

Villanueva’s tenure is what you might expect if Bart Simpson somehow became sheriff of Los Angeles County. His first big move was rehiring a deputy whom McDonnell had fired following an investigation into domestic violence. Villanueva has ignored fact-laden reports and rejected the idea that the department could possibly house sometimes-violent deputy cliques. He regularly lashes out at media members for having the audacity to criticize him. He seems to delight in waging war against the five County Supervisors who oversee his budget.

What does he get for all this? A lot of opposition. Also, perhaps four more years.

“When you all write an article that is critical of him, he goes up five points,” County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said recently at a Downtown luncheon hosted by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum.

Barger knows the department, and the county, inside out. Her husband is a retired sheriff’s deputy. She is in her second term representing the 2,800-square-mile Fifth District, and before that served 15 years as chief of staff to her predecessor, Mike Antonovich. She’s unabashedly pro-law enforcement and would seem like a sheriff’s most natural ally in local government.

Yet Barger, like other supes, has tangled with Villanueva almost since he was sworn in, and though he has asserted that the divide is because most officeholders endorsed McDonnell, in truth Villanueva emerged from the race a sore winner. Barger referenced the approach at the luncheon.

“He’s the sheriff. Let’s move on. It’s time,” she remarked. “People are sick and tired of the pettiness.”

They are, but what many people are even more tired of is the homeless encampments proliferating in the region. Villanueva has recognized this and has been outspoken in trying to get people experiencing homelessness off the streets and clear tents. He made waves for efforts in Venice and promises to take action in Hollywood.

This all comes as the LASD, like the Los Angeles Police Department, is having trouble hiring new members, and Barger was asked for her thoughts on seeing the force dedicate deputies to confronting homelessness. She acknowledged worrying that this means some unincorporated portions of the county remain under-patrolled.

“We have no control over what the sheriff does, but from the standpoint of, on one hand saying we’re down deputies, [and] on the other hand you’re going into jurisdictions not within your control, it is frustrating,” Barger remarked. But, she added, “It resonates with the people. There were people applauding him going into Venice. I got emails… we got phone calls from people saying it’s about time someone did something about the homeless population.”

That may work out as a plus for Villanueva as the June 7 election approaches. So might the fact that there are eight people running against him, and not one has managed to burst from the field. While (name avalanche approaching) Britta Steinbrenner, Karla Carranza, Robert Luna, Eric Strong, April Hood, Matt Rodriguez, Eli Vera and Cecil Rhambo all boast some level of support, none is generating widespread momentum or raising the kind of money that positions them as a leading challenger.

By the way, running for sheriff is about as easy as scaling Mt. Everest. In the June 2018 primary more than 1.2 million people cast ballots. Good luck communicating effectively and consistently with them unless you have Caruso-style money. At this point, most people I’ve spoken to who watch this stuff expect Villanueva will easily finish in first place in the primary. The question is whether he gets over 50% of the vote and secures another term, or remains under, and a challenger emerges from the field for an epic runoff.

Even Barger recognizes the wildness that could ensue.

“Many didn’t think that Jim McDonnell could be beat, and we have Alex Villanueva,” she said at the Current Affairs Forum. “So I wouldn’t underestimate the power of the voters.”