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Criminal Justice

How Outgoing LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva Went From Running As A Progressive To Being A Fox News Darling

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva waves as he steps off a stage
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva waves to supporters after giving a speech during an election night party at Quiet Cannon in Montebello, Calif., on Nov. 8.
(Trevor Stamp for LAist)
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When Alex Villanueva ran for sheriff of Los Angeles County in 2018, he was a no-name candidate with little chance of being elected. He didn’t have any leadership experience and was running to unseat incumbent Jim McDonnell. Running as a reformist Democrat in that blue wave election, he won.

Listen to our podcast series about Alex Villanueva's rise and fall as L.A. County's sheriff.

In 2022, things are quite different. Villanueva, the incumbent, ran for reelection without much of the support he had four years ago. He also ran after a tenure full of controversies.

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One week after Election Day, Villanueva conceded to challenger Robert Luna, the former chief of another big department the Long Beach police.

In his concession, a defiant Villanueva listed accomplishments and rehashed grievances (and he has many targets: Board of Supervisors, the Inspector General, the media, and former employees who have accused him of misconduct.)

He also said:

“I want to wish the incoming Sheriff well. I want him to succeed for a simple reason: The safety of the community depends on him succeeding.”

Ahead of this pivotal run-off election, longtime correspondent Frank Stoltze — who now covers civics and democracy — examined Villanueva's tenure. In the fifth episode, the last released ahead of the election, Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff examines:

  • How Villanueva campaigned
  • Why many of his original supporters have abandoned him
  • And what’s at stake for the Sheriff’s Department.

Here’s what we learned:

1. Villanueva's claims of reform are disputed by some key 2018 supporters.

During his campaign four years ago, Villanueva promised to stop transferring people detained in L.A. County jails to federal immigration authorities. That prompted the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, to endorse him and deploy volunteers to go door-to-door on his behalf.

CHIRLA Executive Director Angelica Salas told us that not long after Villanueva took over as sheriff, he showed her an empty office in the Twin Towers jail where Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents used to sit. “And I remember that I just felt like … this is why we elected [him],” she said.

But when Villanueva rehired Carl Mandoyan — a former deputy who had been fired for domestic violence and lying — Salas said she began to believe the sheriff just cared about protecting his deputies, instead of the community. Neither Salas nor CHIRLA have endorsed Villanueva for reelection.

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Bringing back Mandoyan was also a tipping point for Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats. The L.A. County Democratic Party endorsed Villanueva in 2018, but after the sheriff brought back Mandoyan, Johnson said he became convinced that Villanueva was “in thrall” to “conspiratorial thinking” that “former Sheriff's Department staff and county staff were engaged in a plot to undo him.”

In June 2021, the L.A. County Democratic Party called on Villanueva to resign.

2. Deputies remain among Villanueva’s fiercest supporters.

In 2018, Villanueva promised deputies that he would enact reforms on their behalf, saying he would consider taking steps such as giving jail guards back their metal flashlights, reviewing the cases of deputies who had been fired, and rewriting former Sheriff McDonnell’s tough discipline guidelines. Reform, in this context, didn’t mean getting ICE out of the jails or addressing deputy gangs: it meant fixing a department that Villanueva believed didn’t treat its deputies well.

Because of these promises, he won the endorsement of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, or ALADS.

ALADS endorsed Villanueva again this year. Detective Steve Blagg, a 30-year veteran of the department, told us the sheriff has their back. “At heart, he's still a deputy. He truly cares about the men and women that are out there doing this job every day,” he said.

3. Still saying he's a Democrat, sheriff courted Republicans and appeared on Fox News.

In a speech at the L.A. County’s Republican Party’s 2021 “Winter Wonderland” holiday event, Villanueva criticized the board of supervisors and other opponents, saying they want “a woke sheriff funded by George Soros.” He went after the LA Times, saying the paper refuses to acknowledge he has done anything right.

Villanueva has also appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show to discuss a variety of issues, including why he refused to enforce L.A. County’s vaccine mandate in his department. He told us he goes on Fox News because the network allows him to “tell my story,” while other journalists try to turn interviews with him into “a deposition for a lawsuit.”

4. For many the election became an “anyone but Villanueva” race.

Yes, Villanueva was defeated by Robert Luna, the former Long Beach police chief. But it's clear some voters were looking for any alternative. The “anyone but Villanueva” theme concerns Mark Anthony Clayton-Johnson, the head of Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization fighting to abolish the Sheriff’s Department as we know it. Clayton-Johnson worries if Luna wins, voters may breathe a sigh of relief and pay less attention to the department’s problems.

Clayton-Johnson told us he doesn’t believe anyone can reform the department, maintaining there are too many institutional roadblocks. He points to the problems inside the jails and how, despite years of DOJ intervention and ACLU lawsuits under multiple sheriffs, the jails had their deadliest year last year: 55 people died in custody.

5. Villanueva wants to reform Frank Stoltze.

Surprisingly, Villanueva came in for a second interview for the podcast after claiming he was not treated fairly in the first interview. When Frank asked him why he decided to talk to him again, Villanueva said his goal was to “one day reform you, and to make you a credible journalist."

He went on: “I still hold out hope for you that one day, you'll embrace the concept that there's a corrupt establishment. And an honest man is never welcome in a den of thieves.”

Election Results

Listen To The Episodes

Sheriff Villanueva - Part 1: A very strange press conference
Sheriff Villanueva - Part 2: From longshot candidate to shocking victory
Sheriff Villanueva - Part 3: The trouble with deputy gangs
Sheriff Villanueva - Part 4: Allegations deputies harass families of people killed by deputies
Sheriff Villanueva - Part 5: An uphill fight for reelection
What questions or concerns do you have about civics and democracy in Southern California?
Frank Stoltze explores who has power and how they use it at a time when our democratic systems have been under threat.

Updated November 15, 2022 at 11:03 PM PST
This article was updated with Villanueva's defeat, election results and audio from the five episodes.