One challenger claimed to have swum 26 miles in open water to Catalina Island. Another touted his endorsement from Stevie Wonder. Most of the candidates opposing incumbent Alex Villanueva in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s race have said that, if elected, they would seek to repair the fractured relationship with the Board of Supervisors and the Office of the Inspector General.
Sheriff’s races have historically been largely ceremonial affairs, in which the incumbent or an anointed successor glides to victory with little of the drama that has defined this election. In fact, in defeating former Sheriff Jim McDonnell in 2018, Villanueva became the first challenger in more than 100 years to defeat a standing sheriff seeking reelection.
In this year’s race, most of the challengers have tried to tap into the newly energized “anyone but him” campaign against Villanueva. Led by his former backers in the Democratic Party and progressive groups such as Communities United Against Villanueva for Sheriff 2022, the effort has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the election.
Here are the nine candidates for Los Angeles County sheriff:
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, incumbent
Villanueva has been a lightning rod for controversy since taking office four years ago. Yet he seems to understand that the scandals plaguing his administration could undermine him politically and has stepped up his campaigning, sometimes in areas that the department doesn’t patrol. In one high-profile episode, he showed up in Venice Beach with a group of deputies in June after blasting Los Angeles officials for their handling of homelessness.
At a candidate debate earlier this year, he touted some of his initiatives since taking office, saying he turned a budget deficit into a surplus, rolled out body cameras department-wide and managed the spread of COVID-19 in the jails. He also won the endorsement of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, whose president, James Wheeler, said he interviewed every candidate and then put it to vote to its members, who “overwhelmingly” voted to endorse Villanueva. Wheeler said he suspects their support hinged on the sheriff’s strong opposition of the county’s vaccine mandate. “I think the members feel like he’s looking out for their best interest,” he said.
Earlier this month, in what was the latest embarrassment for the Sheriff’s Department, several sheriff’s officials filed legal claims contradicting Villanueva’s account of how he handled an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes. He later said that his department was investigating a Times journalist for her reporting on the cover-up of the kneeling incident, but backed off the announcement after facing criticism from politicians, the newspaper and press freedom groups.
Villanueva was elected on a swell of support from Democratic voters who believed him to be a progressive reformer. But in the years since, he has pivoted sharply to the right to seek reelection as a more conservative law-and-order candidate. At one debate, Villanueva challenged his opponents to support efforts to remove Dist. Atty. George Gascón from office. None said whether they think the progressive prosecutor should be recalled. On the issue of “deputy gangs” Villanueva has in the past denied their existence; he also has taken credit for addressing the problem with a policy that prohibits deputies from joining groups that promote behavior that violates the rights of others.
Karla Carranza, LASD sergeant
The sheriff’s sergeant, currently assigned to Twin Towers jail in downtown L.A., has volunteered with Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives (VIDA), a program for at-risk youth started by a pair of deputies in the 1980s. She said she recognizes she’s an “underdog” in the race and chafes at not being invited to several candidate forums. But, she said, her lack of experience wouldn’t hold her back from making needed changes after commissioning a study of the department.
Villanueva, she says, hasn’t paid much attention to the county jails, and she pledged to do more to shore up staffing shortages at certain facilities and address a rash of fentanyl overdoses among inmates. Growing up, she had a distrust of law enforcement that was shaped in part by her mother’s experience fleeing war-torn El Salvador. But, she says she later saw the good that policing can do, a conviction that was strengthened after the murder of one of her brothers in San Fernando Valley in 2009.
Robert Luna, retired Long Beach police chief
The recently retired chief of the Long Beach Police Department is considered the only serious outside contender, with a geographic base in the South Bay and a track record of reducing officers’ use of force in civilian encounters. Unlike Villanueva, he said he would fire deputies who refuse to adhere to the county’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and do more to rid the department of deputy gangs. He would also prioritize deputy wellness, saying that at least some misconduct is the result of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. But his announcement last year was interrupted by a group of protesters, seeking to draw attention to his agency’s low vaccination rate among officers and its past use of a texting application that permanently erases messages.
In 2014, he was named the first Latino police chief in Long Beach history. He retired to focus on the sheriff’s race. Although he has faced questions about his ability to run a far larger agency, Luna said he has proven his leadership skills, pointing to his appointment to the board of the Major Cities Chiefs Assn. Being an outsider means that he wouldn’t be beholden to any interests in the Sheriff’s Department, Luna said, adding that he would open up “every record” to outside agencies like the FBI and the state Department of Justice “to come in and do a thorough investigation.”
Cecil Rhambo, retired LASD assistant sheriff
The Los Angeles International Airport police chief and former assistant sheriff is considered one of the front-runners in a crowded field. He boasts the most endorsements of any challenger, with his backers county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, the California Legislative Black Caucus and the mayors of Compton and Carson, where he served as a city manager. He briefly considered a career in life insurance, and also applied to the LAPD, before joining the Sheriff’s Department.
After retiring from the department in 2014, he worked as city manager in Compton and Carson before returning to law enforcement when he became top cop at LAX. Since entering the race, he has drawn scrutiny for being involved in several on-duty shootings and for his past friendship with Paul Tanaka, the former undersheriff who was convicted on federal charges of spearheading a plan to interfere with an FBI investigation of the county jails. Rhambo has downplayed his relationship with Tanaka, saying he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since Rhambo testified in the federal trial of former sheriff Lee Baca. Rhambo and Tanaka served together on a department discipline committee that was dissolved after it opted not to demote a deputy who pointed a gun at a colleague’s head and threatened to kill him.
In a campaign ad that aired last July, the mustachioed Rhambo drove around Los Angeles in a squad car while referring to Villanueva as a “strongman who gets elected, claims to be an outsider, but becomes corrupt and obsessed with power.” In a clip that surfaced online, Rhambo proudly proclaimed that he was the only candidate to have swum 26 nautical miles in open water to Catalina Island.
Matt Rodriguez, retired LASD captain
The retired Sheriff’s Department captain joined the force in 1988, following in the footsteps of his father and brother, who had both tried to nudge him toward going to law school. But, he was hooked on policing when, at 16, he went on a ride-along with his brother through the streets of Lynwood. “You know there was a lot of excitement, lights and sirens, chasing criminals.”
He graduated from UCLA while working at Men’s Central Jail, and years later earned two master’s degrees, feeling that as a young Latino deputy operating in what at that time was a “good old boys network,” he needed to work twice as hard to be recognized and get ahead. His friendship with Villanueva stretches back three decades, to when both men were drill instructors at the Sheriff’s Academy. When the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs refused to support former Sheriff Lee Baca, the two led a movement to replace the union. They have since had a public falling out.
The only registered Republican in the field, he touts his tough-on-crime credentials and has accused Villanueva of playing both sides of the political spectrum as a way to get reelected. He blamed a rise in violent crime locally on county Dist. Atty. George Gascón, as well as a suite of progressive criminal justice reforms reforms. “Couple that with a pandemic where a sheriff released nearly 5,000 inmates … .” he said. “It’s a disaster.”
April Saucedo Hood, state parole agent
The state parole agent said in an online statement that her priorities include addressing violent crime and restoring trust with the public and county leaders. “The current administration’s response is to give excuse after excuse for these pressing problems,” she wrote. “It is time for real change. I am running to be that change.” Over her 20-plus years in law enforcement, Hood said that she has “worked with police oversight” and that her role as a parole agent “gives me a unique perspective in helping our communities.”
Britta Steinbrenner, retired LASD captain
Before retiring, Steinbrenner headed up security for libraries, hospitals and other county buildings. She lists among her priorities crime, deputy gangs and community policing. Her solution to the problem of sheriff’s gangs is to rotate deputies between the 23 stations, under the assumption that allowing people to work in a place for too long can create an insular culture that’s resistant to change and breeds complacency.
She also plans to tear down some of the more “problematic stations” and “rebuild” them into something that’s more like community center than a fortress. She didn’t pass the deputy’s exam on the first try, after failing to scale a 6-foot concrete wall — which she now looks back on as a metaphor for the challenges she’s overcome as a woman in what remains a male-dominated department. Even still, she’s been passed more than 13 times for the rank of commander, she says.
Eric Strong, LASD lieutenant
The one-time Internal Affairs investigator said there is a need for greater accountability and oversight of the department, adding that he would work with the inspector general, as well as federal authorities. “I don’t need another panel or blue ribbon commission to know that (deputy gangs) exist: What we need is action,” he says.
No stranger to harassment by police growing up, Strong said his dual identities as a Black man and a sheriff’s deputy have given him a unique window into the ills of the profession — and potential solutions. He has criticized what he said he saw as an unfair promotional process within the department and called for the permanent closure of the decrepit Men’s Central Jail. He argued for the reallocation of resources — not “defunding,” he points out — to programs that “give people services, that are going to create sustainable healing solutions to our issues.”
He has earned the backing of some progressive groups, including Knock LA, which wrote in its endorsement of Strong that while he “is not our ideal candidate, he is the best option we have, and voting him into office is the best way to move toward a future where police violence is reduced.” His critics, meanwhile, have seized on his lack of experience.
Eli Vera, retired LASD commander
The one-time driver for former Sheriff Lee Baca was a member of Villanueva’s inner circle. After Vera announced his run, the sheriff demoted him from chief to a commander. Vera filed a grievance, with the two sides recently reaching a roughly $100,000 settlement, pending approval from county supervisors. The Professional Peace Officers Assn., the union that represents supervisors, has endorsed Vera, “who represents the experience, temperament, and skills needed to lead,” while the deputies union backed Villanueva.
Vera has been involved in five on-duty shootings, including a 1999 incident in which he and another deputy fatally shot a 16-year-old boy on an embankment off the 105 Freeway. The incident changed him in many ways, he said, and led him and his wife to start fostering youth from across the county. He hasn’t shied away from discussing the deadly force incidents, but he has released personnel files showing he was cleared of wrongdoing each time. At a candidate forum, he confirmed he would testify before the Civil Oversight Commission, which oversees the Sheriff’s Department and has launched an independent investigation of deputy gangs.