Los Angeles County has many natural advantages: more than 10 million residents, a GDP of over $1 trillion, the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, and the natural beauty of the Pacific Ocean. It’s also increasingly known for its urban disorder: open-air drug scenes, rampant homelessness, and surging rates of assault, gun violence, and homicide. Now a growing feud over Covid vaccine mandates between L.A. County’s powerful five-member Board of Supervisors and the current county sheriff, Alex Villanueva, threatens to make those problems worse.
On April 5, the Board of Supervisors passed a rule change giving the county’s director of personnel the authority to fire any employee who has not complied with the county’s vaccine mandate. The authority to discipline—or in this case, terminate— employees violating the mandate previously rested with individual department heads, such as Sheriff Villanueva. Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly J. Mitchell, both Democrats, argue that this arrangement “has allowed for inconsistent application and enforcement of the policy and wide variety from department to department.”
Villanueva, however, was the clear target. The board passed the rule change after the sheriff refused to fire employees in his department who had failed to comply with the mandate, saying that doing so would have decimated his already-shorthanded force. The board approved the rule change by a four-to-one vote, with only Republican supervisor Kathryn Barger dissenting, on the grounds that she opposed the adoption of a countywide ordinance aimed at a single department head.
The Board of Supervisors’ power play comes at a time when violent crime in Los Angeles is surging to record levels. “Your motion is going to seek to basically cause us to actually lose 4,000 employees, for a grand total of 0.4 percent improvement in positivity rate,” Villanueva said. “We’re coming off two years of a historically high 94% increase in homicide rate, 64% increase in grand theft auto. And this is just not sustainable.”
Villanueva has questioned the legality of the measure, indicating that he will look to the courts for a judicial challenge. He has argued that department personnel who chose not to vaccinate are required to submit to weekly Covid testing and thus have committed no administrative offense.
Villanueva chalks up the rule change to several supervisors’ ongoing efforts to defund his department. He has also criticized the county’s recommended $38.6 billion budget for the 2022–23 fiscal year, claiming that it reallocates Sheriff’s Department funds to alternative programs. The board denied his request for a $500 million budget increase; his department will instead receive roughly the same budget as the current fiscal year ($3.6 billion), even as U.S. inflation has accelerated to 8.3 percent annually, a 40-year high.
Villanueva, a Latino veteran of the Air Force and California National Guard, is the first Democrat to hold the post of sheriff in 138 years, but his independent streak has made him a target within his own party. He was not the Democratic establishment’s sanctioned candidate when he ran four years ago, but he overcame the power of L.A.’s political class by tapping into the growing Latino electorate. Since his election, he has publicly denounced “wokeism” and doesn’t hesitate to call out Democratic officials for their failures—especially the supervisors’ poor handling of the county’s homeless population, which grew by 55 percent from 2015 to 2020. Villanueva’s labeling of the supervisors—along with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti—as “architects of failure” has not gone over well with Democrats. The supervisors have all but declared war, publicly suggesting that the County Charter should be amended so that sheriffs are appointed rather than elected.
With neither side showing signs of backing down, it may be up to Los Angeles County voters themselves to settle the dispute. The sheriff and two of the five seats on the board of supervisors are up for a vote in the general election this November, and the primary election takes place tomorrow. In District 1, supervisor Hilda Solis, a Villanueva critic, is likely to win reelection, but Kuehl’s decision not to run for reelection has left the District 3 race wide open. The current frontrunner, California state senate majority leader Bob Hertzberg, has stayed mostly silent on Villanueva, but his campaign has received more than $700,000 from a political-action committee funded by the Association of L.A. Deputy Sheriffs.
Meantime, Villanueva’s political opponents, backed by the Los Angeles Times, have engaged in a campaign of their own to defeat the sheriff—eight candidates are running against him in the primary—or force him into a runoff. Complicating their plans, however, is Villanueva’s strong support among Latinos, who may demonstrate their emergence as the county’s most powerful voting bloc.
Photo by Christina House / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images