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Can Alejandro Villanueva Keep His Job?

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Can Alejandro Villanueva Keep His Job?

In Los Angeles County, a Democratic sheriff who wants to enforce the law finds himself on the wrong side of his own party. August 17, 2021
California
Politics and law
Public safety

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alejandro Villanueva thinks he can survive at the ballot box in 2022. But the local Democratic Party establishment that helped elect this law-and-order Democrat in 2018 has turned against him, suggesting an uphill battle.

A series of events on June 8 captured his plight. The sheriff’s department spearheaded two major operations: a raid of more than 200 illegal marijuana farms in the remote high-desert north of the city described as the “largest illegal drug bust operation in the history of the department,” and a tour by Villanueva of the homeless encampments in Venice Beach to speak with residents, business owners, and the unhoused themselves. That same day, the L.A. County Democratic Party called for Villanueva’s resignation for “perpetuating a culture of police brutality” and failing to submit the department to more civilian oversight. An attempt to enforce the rule of law, then, was upstaged by a political statement—a lawman of the Democratic Party stymied not only by lawbreakers but by forces within his own party.

Before the George Floyd protests, Villanueva—a Latino veteran of the Air Force and California National Guard who boasts a doctorate in public administration and became the first Democrat to hold his elected post in 138 years—might have been considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, proof that Democrats could thread the needle between backing the blue and favoring reform. But Candidate Villanueva, the firebrand of 2018 who shockingly unseated an incumbent, has become Sheriff Villanueva of 2020, an enemy of his own party’s establishment. How did it happen? That depends on whom you ask.

Alene Tchekmedyian writes in the Los Angeles Times that Villanueva has “shifted to the right,” that his “law and order” pitch is an attempt to shore up support from a once-enthusiastic base. “My base is changing, not shrinking,” Villanueva tells me in response to that assessment. In fact, he says, “it’s expanding.” At issue is his tough stance on homelessness, his indictment of L.A.’s “architects of failure,” his repudiation of the idea that “behind every police department in the country lurks a Derek Chauvin,” and his willingness to issue more conceal-carry permits than his predecessors. These positions have earned him the scorn of prominent L.A. liberals, from Mark Gonzalez, chairman of the county’s Democratic Party, to Melina Abdullah, Cal State L.A. professor and cofounder of Black Lives Matter’s L.A. chapter.

Why does the sheriff invoke such ire within his own party? In an hour-long interview from his eighth-floor conference room in L.A.’s Hall of Justice, Villanueva blames a thirst for “power and control” from party officials, who “believe the sheriff should be appointed, not elected.” These officials “have this undying faith in their ability to run the department better,” he says. Villanueva was directly elected, making him one of the nation’s major lawman-politicians; the L.A. County sheriff’s department has almost triple the employees of the next-largest, in Cook County, Illinois.

It’s not as if Villanueva hasn’t delivered on some Democratic priorities. On taking office, the sheriff made good on his promises to remove Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials from county jails and to put body cameras on all his deputies. “We have 1 million undocumented in this county,” Villanueva says. “If we have ICE in the jails, that’s 1 million people who won’t report witnessing a crime or becoming a victim of a crime. . . . After the violent offenders serve their time in state prison, let ICE take them then.” Villanueva also created a wage-theft task force to help victims of labor abuse recoup lost wages. He proudly shows me a page on the sheriff’s department’s website that contains detailed video briefings for deputy-involved shootings, part of his push to improve transparency in law enforcement. Finally, he points to a reduction of prisoner-to-prisoner violence within the county jail system and his record in securing the health of inmates and deputies during the pandemic.

But if he embraces certain reforms, Villanueva also enforces the law. Venice neighborhood council member Soledad Ursua credits the sheriff with a vast reduction in homeless encampments over the last two months. “Every Venice resident knows that the progress is from Villanueva,” she says. “Without his presence, our elected officials would have stuck with their policy of kicking the can down the road. . . . Normally it’s the homeless setting fires in Venice Beach, but in this case it’s Villanueva who lit a fire under” a city councilman who had lagged on the issue. Shoplifting is also a problem. “You’ve seen the videos, right?” Villanueva asks. “The guys just walking out of TJ Maxx” with stolen merchandise in broad daylight are “Gascón shoppers,” in Villanueva’s parlance—a shot at L.A. district attorney George Gascón’s refusal to prosecute entire classes of crime.

Last September, in an event that Villanueva would later call “an inflection point,” two sheriff’s deputies were ambushed and shot while parked outside a metro stop in Compton. Video later surfaced, showing both the ambush itself and the action of one officer, shot in the face and seriously injured, applying a tourniquet to her partner’s wound and pulling him behind a pillar to protect him from the shooter. In Villanueva’s eyes, the ambush was a corrective to the ongoing panic over “mass incarceration” and “systemic racism” set off by Floyd’s death. Voters started to fear crime more than the idea that there’s a nationwide “plot [against] black and brown people to throw them in jail,” Villanueva says. Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump called Villanueva in the shooting’s aftermath—though he didn’t receive a call from Californian Kamala Harris.

Villanueva is unapologetic about his stances. He says that his willingness to defend law enforcement has resulted in a surge of recruits to the department at a time when police departments across the country are struggling to hold onto talent. And he argues that his approach reflects the will of the people, while the progressive alternative reflects what he calls “woke privilege.” The “woke” mostly live in wealthy communities on the West Side—the Palisades, Brentwood—and don’t bear the brunt of de-prosecution and de-policing, which have been accompanied by striking increases in violent crime, especially in poorer areas.

Villaneuva’s lonely fight might seem like an intriguing but isolated instance of local color, a beguiling story for those eager to see dissent in Democratic ranks—as some critics, such as Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian, view his appearances on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. Abcarian alleges that Villanueva’s approach is unrepresentative of mainstream Democratic politics.

That’s not how Villanueva sees it. A lifelong Democrat, he insists to me that he will never switch parties. To hear him tell it, his struggle is part of a larger battle for the soul of the Democratic Party—a war between “the woke, for lack of a better word,” and common sense. The national Democratic party has a “DNA of stupidity that runs deep,” says Villanueva. “I am going to convince Democrats they are pursuing a dead-end branch of the evolutionary tree.” Eric Adams’s win in the New York mayoral primary demonstrated that “people are gonna vote based on what’s important to them . . . not on the luxury of having these lofty ideals,” he says.

Even if his own party doesn’t want to listen to him, the sheriff has a story to tell about its future. He is up for reelection next year. If Adams’s victory is a portent, then Villanueva stands a good chance of defying the will of the Democratic Party establishment in Los Angeles. If not, then the county party’s progressive wing, increasingly synonymous with the party establishment, will have another pelt to claim as a trophy.

“Has any national figure from the DNC ever reached out to talk with you and pick your brain?” I ask. “Never—not a single one,” he says. If Villanueva wins reelection in 2022, maybe that will change.

Photo by Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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