Opinion: Democrats, We Put Sheriff Villanueva in Office. Now It’s on Us to Get Him Out

As opposition to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s leadership grows, the forces that helped elect him need to help reverse course
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There’s no pussyfooting around it. Democrats led the charge that helped Alex Villanueva become Los Angeles County Sheriff, and it’s Democrats who need to get him out.

Look, I drank the Kool-Aid too. For me it was former Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s handling of the Cherie Townsend case that made me champion his opponent in the 2018 race. Townsend, a Black mother of two, was arrested and accused of murdering a wealthy white woman in Rolling Hills Estates in 2018, but was released when the sheriff’s department failed to present enough evidence for the District Attorney to press charges. Despite her release, Townsend is still dealing with the effects of being labeled a murderer, and neither McDonnell nor his predecessor have apologized to her or returned her impounded car; she’s currently pursuing a wrongful arrest lawsuit against the department

For others, it was McDonnell’s handling of the many, many allegations of assault and rape by deputies in the county’s jails, the questionable suicides, and cozy relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who used the county’s massive jail system. Under McDonnell’s watch, a Los Angeles Times investigation found that a team of deputies targeted thousands of innocent Latino motorists on the 5 Freeway in drug searches, a practice that’s now under review. Many felt more could have been done to curb deputies sporting matching tattoos that we now know demonstrate allegiance to gangs within the department.

Enter Alex Villanueva, a relatively unknown figure in Los Angeles politics who with the help of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party took advantage of low-information voters and Democrats’ extreme displeasure with President Donald Trump. All they had to do was make McDonnell a Republican and Villanueva a Democrat—and it worked.

Javier Gonzalez, the campaign strategist for Citizens PAC, a group that channeled funding from labor organizationsto promote Villanueva, once said, “We owe a lot of this to Trump. … Where did Democrats in L.A. County have to go to express their displeasure with Trump?”

Gonzalez also said Democrats fount “lightning in a bottle” in Villanueva, who checked all of the boxes: “A Democrat, progressive, straight and narrow, law enforcement credentials, military credentials, fluent Spanish, lived in Puerto Rico…It was a perfect storm here,” Gonzalez said.

But nearly two years later, just about everyone who voted for Villanueva with the exception of rank-and-file deputies, has buyer’s remorse—including me.

Villanueva has proven himself to be our local version of Donald Trump. We put a vindictive, self-serving narcissist—a registered Democrat in name only—into office, and now it’s time for us to use the same amount of enthusiasm, energy, and money we poured into electing him into removing him from office.

And no, we can’t wait until it’s politically convenient to do so because people are dying and deputies are lying.

The Democratic Party continues to have this fair-weather relationship with criminal justice reform advocates, a relationship where they support criminal justice reform when it’s easy and convenient to do so and turn their backs when it’s not. That was put on full display during one of the presidential debates, when now-President-elect Joe Biden made clear he doesn’t support defunding the police, although he embraced Black Lives mater on the campaign trail. But Biden isn’t the only Democrat using Black Lives Matter and the criminal justice reform movement when it serves their purposes.

Earlier this year, a bill that would have allowed “bad officers” to be permanently stripped of their badges failed to pass the Democrat-led California Legislature when state lawmakers couldn’t muster enough support to pass one of the year’s top policing reform bills. The measure would have created a way to decertify officers found to have committed serious misconduct. They also failed to pass a bill that would have made public disciplinary records against police officers accused of racist or discriminatory actions, or those who have a history of wrongful arrests or searches.

The bottom line is that too many Democrats are publicly sympathetic and supportive of Black Lives Matter as a movement while failing to promote its most important policy proposals.

Villanueva doesn’t even espouse the stated values of the Democratic Party. Since being elected, he’s rehired a deputy fired over domestic violence allegations, refused any kind of oversight over the sheriff’s department, and diminished allegations of misconduct by deputy “gangs.” He’s already cost the county millions of dollars in claims of excessive force by members of the department. After the landslide victory of Measure R in March, he refuses to comply with legally issued subpoenas from the Civilian Oversight Commission that oversees the sheriff’s department.

Like Trump, Villanueva has made it clear he’s not going anywhere and that no one is the boss of him. Our only alternative is to recall Trump’s mini-me, escort him out of the building, and start anew. This is a new day, and being elected doesn’t mean life occupancy in that position anymore. In the end, voters always have the final say and as quickly as we put Villanueva into office, we can take him out. Every elected official’s first term of office is a probationary period.

The L.A. County Democratic Party owes that to Los Angeles.

The last thing criminal justice reform advocates and supporters need is more symbolism from Democratic lawmakers and the Democratic Party. What we need, want, and demand is leadership in the form of action.

Villanueva has to go. We can’t wait until 2022. The Democratic Party put him into office, so the Democratic Party needs to fund the campaign to remove him.

Jasmyne A. Cannick is a political strategist and an elected member of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party representing the 53rd Assembly District which includes the communities of Adams-Normandie, Koreatown, Boyle Heights, Huntington Park, and downtown Los Angeles.