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Alex Villanueva Declares Victory Over Jim McDonnell In LA County Sheriff's Race

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell (L) faced challenger Alex Villanueva as he sought re-election on November 6, 2018. (Left photo by James Bernal for KPCC) (Right photo by KPCC)
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This story was updated on Tuesday, Nov. 20.

Retired L.A. County Sheriff's Lt. Alex Villanueva widened his lead to nearly 87,000 votes over Sheriff Jim McDonnell in the latest vote count Tuesday.

Villanueva had already declared victory after last Friday's count showed him surging ahead by more than 57,000 votes. If Villanueva's lead holds up, the previously little-known lieutenant from La Habra Heights has scored a stunning upset.

Based on "our performance in this last batch of votes counted, ... I'm going to declare this race is over. We won," Villanueva, 55, told cheering supporters at his East L.A. campaign headquarters on Friday.

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There's been no immediate comment from McDonnell, and Villanueva said he had not yet heard from the sheriff.

After Friday's update, Villanueva has 1,112,673 votes to McDonnell's 1,054,863, giving the challenger 51.3 percent of the vote to McDonnell's 48.7 percent. Since last Friday's update had the two men in a virtual tie, Villanueva has steadily pulled away as officials tally more provisional and last-minute vote-by-mail ballots.

Fernando Guerra, a political scientist and director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles, said even with more than 400,000 votes left to count, Villanueva appears to have opened up too large of a margin for McDonnell to overcome.

The challenger, who never commanded more than about 40 deputies in three decades with the department, seems poised to take command of the country's largest sheriff's department, with more than 9,500 deputies and another 8,000 civilian employees.

Villanueva would oversee crime fighting in all of unincorporated L.A. County and 44 cities. In addition, he'd be responsible for the problem-plagued county jails, which hold more than 18,000 inmates - one-third of whom are mentally ill.

Asked what would be his first priority as sheriff, Villanueva, who ran as a reformer intent on getting rid of corruption at the top, said, "We're going to clean house."

He said, "obviously it's a very complex process trying to transform a very large organization that's been mired in corruption and scandal year after year. But we're going to put all those wheels in motion."

When asked how much of top leadership he plans to remove, Villanueva said, "the overwhelming majority," then added, "we'll decide everything on a case-by-case basis. We're not going to just say this is exactly who's going to be coming or going, we have to evaluate everybody."

One key factor in Villanueva's strong performance in the election was a mailer sent to more than 1 million people by the L.A. County Democratic Party portraying McDonnell as allied with President Trump.

Sheriff is a nonpartisan office, but the party's mailer featured side-by-side photos of McDonnnell and Trump and asked, "Which side are you on?" - playing on McDonnell's refusal to support a state law that limits cooperation between federal immigration and local law enforcement.

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But the flier went a step further, noting sheriffs - including McDonnell - met with Trump once in the Oval office and including a quote from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions: "Honor the Anglo American Tradition of Sheriff." McDonnell's campaign called the mailer unfair.

The one-two punch of associating McDonnell with Trump and his immigration policies in an overwhelmingly Democratic county with a huge Latino immigrant population convinced many liberal voters the sheriff had to go. Villanueva's Spanish surname may have helped drive his message home.

Villanueva's third punch came in the former of a huge independent expenditure on his behalf by the union that represents rank-and-file deputies. Villanueva raised only about $150,000, but the Association of Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs threw more than $1.3 million dollars behind Villanueva.

Union officials said deputies were angry about a personnel shortage that resulted in forced overtime. They also resented the sheriff's crackdown on deputies McDonnell said were dishonest.

McDonnell - elected four years ago in the wake of a scandal that saw former Sheriff Lee Baca and more than 20 other sheriff's officials convicted for corruption - implemented a more strict honesty policy that made it easier to fire deputies. The union said he fired many deputies unfairly.

Union officials also were infuriated by McDonnell's unprecedented effort to provide the names of 300 deputies who may have credibility problems in criminal cases to the district attorney. They argued the sheriff unfairly besmirched deputies who may have made one mistake. The union sued and the landmark case is before the state Supreme Court.

The political climate around public safety also helped Villanueva, said Guerra.

"It used to be if you were a tough on crime guy who looked the part you would get elected," he said. "Now people are looking for reformers, it's more nuanced."

During the campaign, Villanueva went to small community groups and Democratic party clubs around the county talking about focusing more on community policing.

Villanueva argued McDonnell, a former Long Beach police chief and one-time LAPD assistant chief, had relied too heavily on members of the old regime.

McDonnell did relatively little fundraising or campaigning. He doesn't like politics and argued sheriffs should remain above the partisan fray, while Villanueva was leveraging a highly partisan anti-Trump atmosphere to his favor.

If Villanueva emerges as the new sheriff, one key question is, how will he navigate his relationship with the powerful deputies union? He's echoed the union's positions on terminations and its concerns about new restrictions on the use of force in jails -- restrictions imposed after a federal investigation into beatings. Those restrictions, Villanueva has said, may be resulting in more injuries to deputies.

Villanueva was born in Chicago to a Polish mother and Puerto Rican father. He joined the U.S. Air Force after high school and came to Southern California, when he was assigned to Norton Air Force base in San Bernardino.

He joined the sheriff's department in 1986 and has served in a variety of assignments, patrolling East Los Angeles, serving as a drill instructor at the sheriff's academy and supervising the women's jail in Lynwood.

He met his wife, also a retired deputy, when she was a volunteer at the East L.A. station.

His last assignment was as one of three watch commanders in the Pico Rivera station, a job that required him to supervise about 25 deputies who patrolled the area during an eight-hour shift.

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