Whatever happens in the November election, Democratic candidate Alex Villanueva has already achieved something rare. By forcing a runoff as he looks to defeat incumbent Jim McDonnell, he’s accomplished something that has only happened four times in 100 years.
That’s made all the more remarkable when considering the fact that the sheriff’s seat has been in the hands of Republicans for 138 years (McDonnell is running as an independent but has been a registered Republican in the past).
But Villanueva isn’t satisfied to be the gallant runner-up. He thinks he should win. And he thinks he will win.
“I have 32 years of institutional knowledge of the Sheriff’s Department,” Villanueva says. “I have a doctorate in public administration, and I have a long career history of speaking truth to power. That sets me far apart from the gentleman who is a career bureaucrat, knows very little about the department, and has had four years to do the job and he’s failed for the department. This is pretty straightforward.”
Villanueva puts his success in the election to this point down to his message, which he says is resonating.
“I have the endorsement of a broad cross-section of community organizations, organized labor, personnel from the department, and my platform of reform, rebuild and restore is resonating everywhere,” he says. “People have recognized that we have to change the way we do business. We can’t stay on the same course of action.”
While he’s running as a Democrat, Villanueva says political allegiances haven’t mattered as much in the past, as policy issues haven’t had political undertones. But then Donald Trump took office.
“Because of the Trump administration, and because of McDonnell following the Trump administration’s push against SB54 — sanctuary state laws — it becomes very political,” Villavuena says. “All of a sudden, whoever is sitting in the sheriff’s office is the one who’s going to enforce SB54, or undermine it.”
Villanueva has said that he intends to fully defend SB54 from intrusion by the Trump administration. And he’s not impressed with McDonnell’s record.
“In the year 2016, he handed over to ICE I think 1,007 people,” he says. “In the year 2017, that number increased to 1,223, if I’m correct. So we had a 21.4 percent increase in transfers to ICE for deportation, and that’s when SB54 was already in play. So actually, he increased deportations in spite of SB54.”
“My approach would be to honor and support SB54,” he adds. “We’re going to physically remove ICE from inside the county jails. We’re going to do the transfers outside of the view of other inmates, in the courtyard of our secure bus terminal; we’re not gonna have ICE in uniform roaming inside the jails at all because inmates know the difference. All they’re going to do is report to their family and friends that ICE is in the jails, and then we’d lose any measure of goodwill we have with the undocumented population in terms of them reporting crimes — they’re not doing it right now because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of the relationship between local law enforcement and ICE. [McDonnell] didn’t help matters when he fought tooth and nail against SD54, from the very beginning.”
That community spirit, repairing the rift that inarguably exists between the public and law enforcement, is of paramount important to Villanueva. That said, he will take a hard stance when he feels it’s necessary.
“Both parties have very good values,” he says. “I don’t want to take anything away from the Republican party, at least what it used to be, but the current version under the Trump administration is weaponizing immigration enforcement just for political gain. Unfortunately in L.A. County, we have an undocumented population approaching 1 million. That is absolutely irresponsible because it puts more lives in danger, it creates more victims of crime, and it creates more predators who now believe that they can operate freely in these communities living in the shadows of society. I’m going to put an end to that.”
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McDonnell has accused Villanueva of publicly opposing his reforms that have reduced jail violence and increased accountability, but Villanueva says that’s only half of the story.
“What he’s doing is not telling the truth,” Villanueva says. “No one’s opposing any reform that actually decreases jail violence. His problem is, he’s not telling you the whole story. With jail violence, you can measure it three different ways. There’s the amount of force that deputies use against the inmates. Then there’s the amount of violence of inmates on inmates. Then there’s the amount of violence of inmates on staff, including deputies and the professional staff. Those [latter] two categories are going through the roof, but he makes no mention of that anywhere because it doesn’t satisfy his narrative. It doesn’t help him. Jail violence is a big problem but not the problem of inmates getting beat up. It’s inmates beating up inmates, and inmates beating up staff. They’re using deputies as punching bags now. [McDonnell] took it too far in the other direction. That’s not reform. We don’t even know how to describe that.”
Finally, Villanueva says that his first act in office, should he win, would be a symbolic one.
“In McDonnell’s obsession against unit camaraderie, morale, he banned all station logos throughout the department,” he says. “That’s normal, healthy organizational behavior in any normal organization. I’m going to uncover a station’s logo and let it be used. It’s a part of the culture of the institution, and as long as it doesn’t celebrate or condone violence or death, then by all means let them have at it. Every fire department has them, every police department, every military unit, that’s the normal thing. To ban them on the department shows how out of touch he is with the men and women on the department.”