Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna squared off Wednesday night during a heated, often antagonistic, debate in which they traded barbs over their records in law enforcement and their ability to lead the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.
Villanueva painted his opponent as someone who would be a “puppet” for the county Board of Supervisors, which controls the Sheriff’s Department’s budget, while Luna accused the sheriff of spewing falsehoods about his tenure in Long Beach and blamed him for causing the bitter relationships Villanueva has with other county leaders.
When asked about the controversial raids by sheriff’s deputies last week at the home and office of county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who is a vocal critic of Villanueva, and others in connection with a corruption probe, Luna said he would have referred such a case to an outside agency.
“The sheriff had no business investigating this from the very beginning,” Luna said. “You cannot investigate your political opponents or enemies.”
Villanueva fired back: “He’s not going to touch public corruption. He won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole because his job as puppet is to look the other way.”
Luna suggested that Villanueva routinely deflects responsibility for failures that have occurred on his watch — such as the uptick in homicides in the sheriff’s jurisdiction — onto the supervisors and the district attorney. Violent crime in Long Beach went down under his watch, Luna said.
“I was working for the same D.A. that everybody else was in L.A. County,” Luna said. “Stop the excuses. Let’s get the job done.”
The candidates were asked about homelessness, one of the most pressing issues to county voters. Luna criticized Villanueva for going before news cameras to inaccurately and unfairly take credit for clearing encampments in Venice and elsewhere , while Villanueva retorted that Luna had no plan to address the crisis.
Asked how he’d explain what a moderator said was his recent comment that Black people were “prone to criminality,” Villanueva dodged the question. Instead, he tried to turn the attention on Luna, alleging he had mishandled an incident in Long Beach, in which a member of the department’s homicide unit drew a family tree of convicted killers with a noose around the neck of a Black man.
Luna retorted that he had reported the drawing properly and that it had been investigated, but Villanueva said an officer who raised concerns about the episode faced retaliation.
The candidates vied to present themselves as the person best equipped to lead the agency, but they were often short on details when it came to saying how they would address particular issues.
Luna presented himself as a collaborator who would improve the Sheriff’s Department’s working relationship with other county leaders. Villanueva defended his more combative approach, saying he was standing up against efforts to reduce department resources.
“So when they impose a hiring freeze on the department, what am I going to do? Greet it with open arms?” Villanueva said. “Of course I’m going to object to that.”
The debate, held Wednesday evening at the Skirball Cultural Center and televised live, was co-hosted by the Los Angeles Times.
In the June primary election, Villanueva and Luna emerged as clear favorites from a crowded field of candidates and advanced to a November runoff.
Luna, little known outside of Long Beach, finished only a few percentage points behind Villanueva, who won about 31% of the vote. The tally was widely viewed as a lackluster result for an incumbent sheriff and left Villanueva looking vulnerable going into the head-to-head race.
Perhaps Luna’s biggest challenge is a lack of name recognition among voters, facing off against a highly visible incumbent sheriff who often makes headlines. Villanueva, meanwhile, is a controversial figure who has faced criticism for myriad scandals under his watch.
Most recently, the California attorney general took control over the Sheriff’s Department’s long-running public corruption investigation involving Kuehl and others amid mounting questions about the department’s handling of the probe.
Critics have alleged that Villanueva, despite saying publicly that he’d recused himself from the investigation, is using a secretive public corruption unit he formed to attack political enemies.
He has also supercharged the handing out of licenses to carry concealed weapons — in 2020, he pledged to increase the number of permits by five times and has far exceeded that goal.
A Times investigation last week found that among the thousands of people who have received permits to carry weapons in public under Villanueva are dozens of donors to his election campaigns and others with special links to the sheriff.
These people often gave questionable reasons for needing to be armed, received their permits more quickly than the average wait or were assisted by two deputies who worked directly for Villanueva.
A poll conducted last month by UC Berkeley and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times found that Luna had a slight edge over Villanueva and was favored strongly by liberals and Democrats, while Villanueva was more popular among conservative and Republican voters.
The political divisions illustrate a significant shift in Villanueva’s base of support since 2018, when he wooed progressive Democrats with a promise to kick immigration agents out of the L.A. County jails at a time when many left-leaning voters were frustrated with former President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies.
The platform led to an improbable upset as Villanueva, a longtime registered Democrat, became the first challenger to unseat an incumbent sheriff in more than a century.
Villanueva has since rebranded himself as a more conservative, law-and-order sheriff and candidate, railing against the “woke left” and efforts to “defund” law enforcement while seizing on voter frustrations with the homeless crisis and crime.
Luna, meanwhile, has spent much of his life registered as a Republican. He registered as a Democrat in 2020 after previously switching from Republican to no party preference in 2018, according to voter records.
Despite Luna’s past affiliation as a Republican, much of the county’s Democratic party machine has begun to coalesce behind him in an effort to unseat Villanueva. The L.A. County Democratic Party and all five members of the Board of Supervisors, all but one of whom lean left, are backing Luna.
Luna also announced earlier this month that the seven other candidates who ran for sheriff in the primary have endorsed him.