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Why A Retired Lieutenant Could Upset LA's Sheriff

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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It's close. Very close. But with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Alex Villanueva, a retired sheriff's lieutenant, has taken the lead over Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

Villanueva, 55, ran as a reformer, accusing McDonnell of failing to clean house in the wake of Lee Baca's tenure. By 5:45 Wednesday morning, he had a slight lead over McDonnell -- about one-third of a percentage point.

"Let's keep our fingers crossed," Villanueva told his supporters Tuesday night. "Tomorrow we may just have a new sheriff in town."

In an interview Wednesday, the challenger said, "I think we're pretty much there ... I think Friday we'll have a very good idea."

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County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan is expected to update the vote count on Friday. On Wednesday, Logan estimated there are some 984,000 votes left to count, the vast majority of them vote-by-mail and provisional ballots. As of late Wednesday, just over 1.6 million votes had been tallied in the sheriff's race.

Incumbent sheriffs rarely have trouble winning re-election, and at first few thought Villanueva, who has never held a command position, posed a serious threat to McDonnell.

Villanueva may have benefited from his efforts to portray the non-partisan race as one between a Democrat and a virtual Republican in deep-blue L.A. County.

He also pursued a strategy of painting McDonnell as being closely aligned with federal immigration authorities, a position that would not endear a candidate to the county's Democratic voters angry about President Trump's immigration policies.

Alex Villanueva, who ran against L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, speaks to supporters on election night, Tuesday, November 6, 2018. (Photo by Frank Stoltze/LAist)

While sheriff is a non-partisan position, the L.A. County Democratic Party tends to make an endorsement if there's a Democrat in the race, and it endorsed the Democrat Villanueva. McDonnell is a one-time Republican who said he's now registered as decline to state.

Villanueva played up the party's endorsement in the campaign. Days before the election, the party sent out a mailer to over 1 million Democrats that asked, "Which side are you on?"

The flier featured a color photo of Villanueva on the left side above the words, "A new sheriff for a new era."

The right side featured a black-and-white photo of McDonnell with a photo of Trump in the background.

The mailer noted that sheriffs met with Trump in the Oval office and quoted Attorney General Jeff Sessions: "Honor the Anglo American Tradition of Sheriff."

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"Anything that would associate an official with the Trump administration is going to be devastating in L.A. County," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

McDonnell called the mailer a cheap shot.

"I feel that somebody who's responsible for the public safety of everyone in Los Angeles County shouldn't be tied to one party or another, and that's the posture I've taken," the sheriff told KPCC/LAist on election night. "So for my opponent to tie me to one party, not fair at all."

The Villanueva camp countered that McDonnell refused to release his voter registration records to prove he was no longer a Republican -- McDonnell said he made that decision as a security precaution because voter records list home addresses.

Perhaps equally damaging, the mailer quoted McDonnell on immigration policy: "I will continue to work with ICE."

McDonnell fought against SB 54, the law signed by Governor Brown last year that limits local law enforcement's cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The sheriff said he saw Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a partner agency in protecting communities -- particularly in joint human trafficking and other operations -- and didn't want his hands tied.

The sheriff regularly hands over to ICE people identified as being in the country without authorization. SB 54 says only people convicted of more serious crimes can be handed over.

Villanueva at one point said he would "kick ICE out" of the jails.

Later, he said he would merely orchestrate handoffs outside the view of other inmates so people would not be unduly afraid the sheriff's department was working with ICE.

The candidates' differences on this issue were relatively minor in the end. But McDonnell's stronger statements in support of ICE and his willingness to allow a greater presence in the jails hurt him in an atmosphere in which Trump has intensified his hard-line rhetoric on immigration.

McDonnell's stance on ICE was said to be a driving factor in the L.A. County Federation of Labor's decision to endorse Villanueva, a decision that was driven in part by heavily Latino unions like the SEIU.

Analysts said Villanueva's name helped him in a low-information race. News organizations paid little attention to the contest to run the nation's largest sheriff's department, making a Latino surname even more valuable.

McDonnell also may have suffered from recent negative stories about his department, including allegations of racial profiling by deputies patrolling the Grapevine.

In addition, there are concerns that matching tattoos worn by some deputies honor use of force against suspects and that the groups of deputies wearing the tatoos amount to gangs.

"I think there are a growing wave of voters around the county who are looking for a new vision for the criminal justice system," said Miriam Krinsky, who served as executive director of the county's Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence.

McDonnell must share some of the blame for the closeness of the race. By his own admission, he abhors campaigning. He refused to attack Villanueva and hosted relatively few fundraisers - a serious handicap in a countywide race that required lots of money to reach voters.

The sheriff's campaign raised barely $1 million. McDonnell was helped by a $750,000 independent expenditure by the union that represents sergeants, lieutenants and jail guards.

McDonnell did benefit from the power of incumbency, along with endorsements from the mayors of L.A. and Long Beach, District Attorney Jackie Lacey and City Attorney Mike Feuer.

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell speaks to supporters on election night, Tuesday, November 6, 2018. (Photo by Frank Stoltze/LAist)

Villanueva's campaign raised about $160,000. But he had an 800-pound gorilla in his camp -- the Association of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputies, which spent more than $1.3 million on mailers for the challenger.

The union has been deeply unhappy with some of McDonnell's reform efforts, including his attempt to share the names of 300 deputies who may have credibility problems with the district attorney. The union sued to block the sheriff's move and the case is now before the state Supreme Court.

The rank and file are also frustrated with a continuing deputy shortage that has resulted in forced overtime and efforts by McDonnell to make it easier to fire those he sees as problem deputies.

There has also long been a rivalry bordering on animosity at times between the sheriff's department and the LAPD, where McDonnell spent three decades.

Sometimes it was small things that annoyed the rank and file and gave them reason to be even more suspicious of the outsider from the LAPD. Because of a scheduling snafu, McDonnell missed the dedication of a community building in Lancaster for a popular sergeant who was shot and killed in the line of duty.

If McDonnell wins, one of his key challenges going forward will be winning the loyalty of his troops as he seeks to rein in a sprawling department where patrol stations are sometimes separated by mountain ranges and local commanders can develop fiefdoms.

If Villanueva wins, he will have the opportunity to put together his own team, as he prepares to assume command over 9,500 deputies, another 8,000 civilians, and the county's jails. He faces a steep learning curve since he has never served in command.

Whoever wins will face a myriad of other issues - not least the deputy shortage, which has stalled efforts to place body cameras on all deputies and improve care for more than 4,000 jail inmates with mental health issues.

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