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Criminal Justice

Watch Back: Challengers Blast Sheriff Villanueva’s Antagonism Toward Supes During First Debate

Sheriff Alex Villanueva, wearing his uniform, stands at a podium with a red curtain behind him.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks at the Sheriff's Academy graduation ceremony in Jan. 2019.
(Kyle Grillot
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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva faced off against his six challenges in the first sheriff’s debate of the race for sheriff Wednesday night, and he faced a common criticism: All of them blasted Villanueva for his antagonistic relationship with the County Board of Supervisors.

You can watch a replay of the debate here.

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“We have to stop calling the Board of Supervisors names,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Britta Steinbrenner.

“You have to possess at least an ounce of diplomacy,” added former Sheriff’s Capt. Matt Rodriguez.

And this from Sheriff’s Commander Eli Vera: “The reckless and impulsive speech of a single person has caused tremendous damage to each member of this department.”

Among other things, Villanueva has said the five members of the Board of Supervisors — who control his budget — “worship at the altar of wokism.” At the debate, he did not shy away from his usual criticisms.

Villanueva accused the board of “extreme political ideology” and said voters don’t want a “puppet” sheriff.

“They do not want a sheriff who is subservient or works for the Board of Supervisors, like everybody to my right is proposing to do,” the sheriff said as he stood at one end of the debate stage.

Two of his toughest challengers may be LAX Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, who once served as assistant sheriff, and former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.

Like the others, they promised to work more cooperatively with the supervisors.

“You don’t have to always do what the Board of Supervisors says, but there is a meeting of the minds and there has to be some consensus,” Rhambo said.

“You have to have collaborative partnerships with the people who control the budget strings,” Luna added.

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Each of the candidates was asked whether they would enforce the county’s vaccine mandate at the Sheriff’s Department. Only Villanueva and Rodriquez said they would not. The sheriff already has refused to do so — a popular position among many deputies.

The candidates were also asked whether they would try to convince the Board of Supervisors to reverse an earlier decision and build a new downtown jail. Only Strong opposed the jail, saying it would add to mass incarceration.

Strong also sounded the most progressive among the candidates when he talked about the department’s frayed relationship with some communities.

“We are struggling with communication and trust. But guess what? We have to take a look in the mirror and realize that we helped put ourselves there,” he said.

The debate was sponsored by the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the Los Angeles Professional Peace Officers Association, which together represent more than 9,000 deputies, sergeants and lieutenants.

ALADS’s endorsement of Villanueva played a key role in his victory in 2018. Union leaders have not said whether they’ll endorse him again this year.

Villanueva already has lost the backing of the L.A. County Democratic Party, whose support four years ago also helped propel him into office.

The primary is in June.

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