Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell is facing a challenge Tuesday from retired sheriff’s Lt. Alex Villanueva in what amounts to a referendum on McDonnell’s efforts to overhaul a scandal-plagued department while maintaining public safety and the faith of those who work for him.
It has been more than 100 years since anyone managed to get elected running against an incumbent L.A. County sheriff. But Villanueva was able to pick up 33 percent of the vote in the June three-way primary, holding McDonnell to 48 percent and forcing a runoff.
Reliable polling on their odds is hard to find, but McDonnell has the endorsement of at least four of the five county supervisors who control his budget and who created the Civilian Oversight Commission to oversee his department. He is also supported by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and dozens of other current and former state, county and city officials.
Villanueva, a Democrat, has the backing of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party in the non-partisan race. McDonnell was once registered as a Republican but now claims no party affiliation. Villanueva also picked up a key endorsement from the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union representing rank-and-file deputies.
In issuing the endorsement, which followed a vote of no-confidence in McDonnell by union members earlier in the year, ALADS President Ron Hernandez said, “Villanueva’s track record demonstrates an ability to initiate reform while staying acutely connected to the needs and experiences of deputies. His impressive primary election campaign gave further evidence of his ability to raise morale, inspire deputies, and truly represent those he wishes to serve.”
McDonnell countered that ALADS’ support for his opponent was a response to McDonnell’s own efforts to hold deputies responsible for misconduct and create more accountability within the department.
“(Villanueva) would take the department backwards to a time of chaos and corruption like it was under Baca and Tanaka,” McDonnell said in a statement, referring to former Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, both convicted in connection with obstructing an FBI investigation into inmate abuse in county jails.
McDonnell does have the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association, which represents sergeants, lieutenants and some civilian LASD employees.
Both candidates are veteran law enforcement officers. Villanueva spent three decades with the LASD before retiring earlier this year and McDonnell was with the Los Angeles Police Department for 29 years — including as second-in-command to then-chief Bill Bratton — before going on to lead the Long Beach Police Department and then being elected sheriff in 2014.
McDonnell has sought to strike a balance between attracting voters who want him to be tough on crime and those more concerned with reports of deputy brutality in the jails and on the streets.
“We’ve reduced serious use of force inside the jails, created a series of systems to build greater accountability, and established the Public Data Sharing Project to increase transparency,” McDonnell says in a statement on his campaign website. “While we have worked hard for reform and to strengthen community relationships, we have also succeeded in bringing crime down 16 percent last year in the areas patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department.”
The job is a big one: managing a department with a budget of more than $3.2 billion and nearly 18,000 employees, providing patrol services for 42 contract cities plus unincorporated areas of the county, and running a county jail system with a daily average 17,000 inmates.
McDonnell has the experience. But the sheriff also has to run on his record and while he’s proven successful in reducing the use of force in county jails, for example, some critics feel he’s fallen short in implementing necessary reforms.
Villanueva has campaigned as a progressive reformer, saying he will rebuild the department based on community policing standards.
“(Residents) want a sheriff who will be transparent and has the institutional knowledge and leadership skills to bring reform, rebuild and restore the LASD,” the retired lieutenant said in a recent statement on his town hall meetings.
While promising to “clean house,” however, Villanueva has also offered some mixed messages. He has accused the sheriff of micromanaging deputies in an effort to impose discipline, implying that Villanueva would roll back new policies. And in a presentation to the ALADS political endorsement committee, Villanueva said he would give custody deputies “all the tools they need to defend themselves,” telling his listeners that “there’s too much indecision going on in the jails now” and he would consider better distribution of Tasers and pepper spray and potentially bring back metal flashlights, which were banned because of their use in force incidents.
Villanueva has committed to ban Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from county jails — a leading issue for civil rights groups — but has acknowledged that he would have to coordinate with ICE to hand over felons convicted of serious or violent crimes on their release.
McDonnell has also offered inconsistent statements on ICE and hurt himself with those advocating for criminal justice reforms by criticizing Proposition 47, which dropped some felony convictions to misdemeanors, and Proposition 57, which made some non-violent felons eligible for early parole.
Regardless of how Villanueva’s commitment to reform stacks up against McDonnell’s, which the average voter may find difficult to assess, Villanueva’s detractors say he is untested in running a department at the scale of the LASD.
“Voters must choose between an experienced law enforcement leader who has run into some roadblocks and a mid-level career officer who has never led or even helped to lead a large and complex organization,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote in its endorsement of McDonnell.