L.A. County sheriff candidates ride ‘anyone but Villanueva’ wave

In some ways, the race for Los Angeles County sheriff is shaping up as a test of how many controversies voters will tolerate from incumbent Alex Villanueva.

His relationship with county leaders has hit new lows. The jails are in disarray. Allegations of a cover-up and retaliation hang over an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate.

Those recent missteps have created an opening for a crowded field trying to unseat the sheriff. If only the public knew who the other eight candidates are.

The controversies have kept Villanueva’s name in the news, and the polarizing sheriff has dominated social media sites such as Twitter. The terms “Villanueva” and “sheriff” were mentioned in more than 11,000 tweets over a seven-day period last week, according to a Times analysis. No other candidate was mentioned more than 200 times.

“It’s just unclear to us who the strongest candidate is, but it is very clear to us that the tone that the current sheriff takes and his conduct is not OK,” said April Verrett, president of SEIU Local 2015, which represents long-term-care workers and has recently been more vocal on criminal justice issues.

With less than three weeks before the primary election, Villanueva’s opponents have plenty of ammunition with which to attack and force a runoff. Most of their attacks — in news interviews, debates and political ads — have focused on the sheriff’s fractured relationship with the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the department’s $3.5-billion budget.

There have been no public polls of the race, but surveys in March and April by Univision and UCLA found that a significant share of the public had an unfavorable view of the sheriff, suggesting he could have trouble getting the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.

Among Villanueva’s most recognizable challengers is current Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, who retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2014. After leaving the department, Rhambo testified in the trial of Lee Baca, the once powerful and popular sheriff who went to prison for obstructing a federal investigation into abuses in county jails and lying to cover up his interference.

Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, who retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2014.

(LAX Airport Police Department)

Rhambo said his decision to testify against Baca and Paul Tanaka — a disgraced former undersheriff and onetime Rhambo ally — showed his willingness to push back on an insular department culture that for too long looked the other way on allegations of misconduct.

He said that, even though rising anxiety over crime and homelessness is threatening certain criminal justice reforms, he would continue working with the community to clean up the department. Rhambo earned the nickname “Hug-A-Thug Chief,” he said, in part because of his willingness to collaborate with unlikely partners, such as gang interventionists and the Nation of Islam, to help fight crime.

“The pendulum always swings back and forth like that, and I think it’s very important for somebody who takes this seat to understand that you’ve gotta do it all,” said Rhambo, who at one time oversaw the Sheriff‘s Department’s eight jails.

But Rhambo has been involved in several shootings in his career, and some critics have questioned his resolve for real change, pointing out that, as Baca’s former No. 3, some of the department’s darkest chapters occurred under his watch.

Another perceived front-runner is Robert Luna, the Long Beach police chief and one of only two candidates with no ties to the Sheriff’s Department. Luna has argued that only an outsider can hope to effect real change in such a troubled agency.

Former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna is running for L.A. County sheriff.

Former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna is running for L.A. County sheriff. He has argued that only an outsider can hope to effect real change in such a troubled agency.

(Courtesy of Robert Luna)

“They are embroidered into that culture. This is what they know. This is what they do,” he said of the rest of the field. “There are great people who work there [the Sheriff’s Department]. I’m not taking that away. But if you’ve done the same thing over and over again, and it’s not working …”

Some have questioned Luna’s ability to transition from a midsized department such as Long Beach, where he oversees a force of about 800 officers, to the far larger Sheriff’s Department, which patrols more than 40 cities and has a staff of roughly 18,000 sworn and civilian employees.

Audrena Redmond, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Long Beach chapter, said that, while she has little faith in any of the candidates, she was especially skeptical of Luna and what she saw as his poor track record of holding officers accountable. “We know that our police department has a problem with heavy-handed cops that Luna has done nothing about,” she said. “So how’s he going to control the Sheriff’s Department with its gangs?”

Eli Vera is another former Sheriff‘s Department official to post up against Villanueva. The onetime commander retired in April to focus on his campaign, saying he would bring a new level of stability to the department. He has since been endorsed by one of two sheriff’s employee unions.

Eli Vera smiles.

Eli Vera, candidate for sheriff, held a news conference in September in front of the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles to address his demotion from chief to commander, which he said is retaliation for announcing his sheriff run.

(Al Seib / Fontana News Room)

Once a close advisor to the sheriff, Vera was demoted by Villanueva after joining the race in April 2021. Vera appealed the decision, and a county board recently voted to settle the matter out of court for roughly $100,000.

Like Rhambo, Vera has a history of on-duty shootings, which resurfaced after he announced his candidacy. Vera hasn’t shied away from discussing the five incidents, including one in which he and another deputy fatally shot a 16-year-old boy in 1999. Like the other four incidents, he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting of the teenager, Julio Castillo, whose mother later sued the department. Vera said the case has haunted him since, but he disputed that it made him unfit for office.

“I know what it is to take the life of a human,” he said. “Being in the courtroom and seeing a mom crying and realizing that you’re the source of her pain. And not responding by becoming defensive, but actually recognizing her pain.”

Javier Gonzalez, Villanueva’s campaign manager, scoffed at the suggestion that any of the challengers would call themselves reform candidates, arguing they were “foot soldiers of the Baca-Tanaka system.”

“If they want to say that a man who’s never shot anyone,” he said, referring to Villanueva, “who’s very religious, who’s a family man, should be replaced by a bunch of goons and hacks who’re loyal to some people in prison, that’s so fake to me.”

Without a clear contender, the Los Angeles Democratic Party and progressive groups that backed Villanueva four years ago have remained on the sidelines, not endorsing any candidate.

But the silence from the left should not be interpreted as support for the sheriff’s leadership or his department’s performance, said Anne Irwin, founder and director of Smart Justice California, which advocates for criminal justice reform. Her organization has also said it won’t make an endorsement until after the primary.

“In this race, the three strongest challengers to Villanueva — Robert Luna, Cecil Rhambo and Eric Strong — are all a welcome contrast to Villanueva,” she said. “They have all pledged support for smart justice reform, they have all pledged to try to repair some of the damage that Villanueva has done to the department, particularly the culture [of] the department.”

Earlier this month, the candidates were grilled, among other things, about how they intended to address the problem of the secretive, gang-like cliques of deputies that have long operated in the Sheriff’s Department. The questioning occurred at a forum hosted by Knock LA, a nonprofit newsroom affiliated with the progressive activist group Ground Game LA. Villanueva, Luna and Rhambo did not attend.

Strong, a onetime Internal Affairs investigator, said in a follow-up interview that he welcomes more oversight and would invite state and federal investigators to look into allegations of brutality and other misconduct. The sheriff’s lieutenant, who oversees operations at four courthouses, has been endorsed by a wide range of faith, law enforcement and civic leaders, a list that includes Stevie Wonder.

He also has gained traction among progressive activists, who welcome his public enthusiasm for dismantling deputy gangs and prosecuting their members, and his refusal to refurbish the Men’s Central Jail, which is set to be closed in the next two years.

But some voters may be wary of supporting an unproven insider promising to clean up the department. After all, said Pastor Eddie Anderson, the current sheriff ran on a progressive platform of reform in 2018 but has since pivoted sharply to the right and is currently running as a more conservative law-and-order candidate.

Anderson, pastor of McCarty Memorial Christian Church in West Adams, said the current field of candidates has struggled to differentiate themselves from one another, offering only platitudes about culture change but no clear plan on how that would happen.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anyone break from the pack,” he said. “I’ve heard about Rhambo. His polling numbers have been doing decent in the Black community. And I forgot the name of the other guy.”

At an earlier forum, hosted by the sheriff’s deputies union, candidate Britta Steinbrenner said “open hostility” toward county supervisors, who set the department’s budget, “is not a plan of the future, it is the plan of our demise.” She and the other candidates — except for Villanueva and Matt Rodriguez — said they’d enforce the county’s vaccine mandate for employees.

Steinbrenner, a Sheriff’s Department captain who heads security for libraries, hospitals and other county buildings, said in an interview that, if elected, she would adopt the recommendations of a study released last fall by the Rand Corp. about the presence of deputy gangs within certain sheriff‘s stations.

L.A. County Sheriff's Department Capt. Britta Steinbrenner announces her candidacy for L.A. County sheriff.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Britta Steinbrenner announces her candidacy for L.A. County sheriff in September in Altadena.

(Jason Armond / Fontana News Room)

To fix the problem, she said she would “rebuild” three of the most troubled stations: in East L.A., Compton and Century City.

“And when I say rebuild, I mean I’m going to bulldoze and rebuild those stations,” she said, adding that she envisioned turning the stations into welcoming community spaces, with classrooms, sports facilities and even an amphitheater — to promote better understanding between deputies and residents.

Karla Carranza, a deputy at Twin Towers jail in downtown L.A., admits she’s an “underdog.” But as such, she said, she wouldn’t be afraid to make drastic changes, starting with overhauling the department’s training program and paying more attention to the jails, which she said Villanueva rarely visits.

Karla Carranza, a deputy at Twin Towers jail in downtown L.A., admits she's an "underdog" in the sheriff's race.

Karla Carranza, a deputy at Twin Towers jail in downtown L.A., admits she’s an “underdog” in the sheriff’s race.

(Karla Carranza)

“With me up there, it’s going to start from scratch, because whatever culture has been shifting through different leadership is going to end there,” she said.

Another candidate, Matt Rodriguez, retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2013 and recently served as interim chief of the Santa Paula Police Department. Rodriguez was once a part of Villanueva’s inner circle, but the men have since had a public falling-out.

Matt Rodriguez is running for L.A. County sheriff.

Matt Rodriguez is running for L.A. County sheriff. He was once a part of Alex Villanueva’s inner circle, but the men have since had a public falling-out.

(Matt Rodriguez)

The only registered Republican candidate, Rodriguez has accused the sheriff of being more interested in preserving his tough guy image than running the department.

“My message is real: He duped the Democrats in believing that he was a liberal, progressive Democrat. They later referred to him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Rodriguez, who’s pledged to be even tougher on crime than Villanueva.

The ninth candidate is April Saucedo Hood, a parole agent. She wrote in an online statement that being an “expert in rehabilitation for the formerly incarcerated population gives me a unique perspective in helping our communities.” She did not return a call from The Times seeking comment.

Villanueva’s path to reelection may have as much to do with his opponents’ lack of name recognition as with his ability to tap into residents’ frustrations with issues such as homelessness and safety amid a nationwide rise in homicides and shootings, said Chris Hallenbrook, assistant professor of political science at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

The current climate is vastly different from the one Villanueva was elected in four years ago, Hallenbrook said. Then, L.A. County voters wary of former President Trump’s immigration policies were eager to embrace a candidate with a stated willingness to keep federal immigration authorities out of the jails.

Primaries tend to draw fewer voters than general elections, and people may be more inclined to vote for a familiar face rather than on the issues, Hallenbrook said. This is especially true of “low-information” elections, where Villanueva has dominated news coverage.

All voters in L.A. County are eligible to vote for sheriff, regardless of whether the department patrols their community.

“Traditionally, anything local is a lower-turnout election, fewer people are paying attention, and so it’s really going to depend a lot of ways in who shows up,” he said. “It’s easier for the turnout to be skewed, to not be representative of the county.”

Especially in Los Angeles County, “where you’ve got South and East L.A., and you’ve also got Beverly Hills,” Hallenbrook said. “If it’s a Lakewood, Beverly Hills election, it’s definitely going to be law and order.”

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