Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna faced each other Wednesday night during a heated, often hostile debate in which they barbed barbs over their law enforcement record and ability to lead the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.
Villanueva portrayed his opponent as someone who would be a “puppet” for the County Board of Supervisors, which manages the Sheriff’s Department budget, while Luna accused the sheriff of spewing falsehoods about his tenure in Long Beach and blaming him. admitted of causing the acrimonious relations Villanueva has with other provincial chiefs.
When asked about 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 investigation, Luna said he would have referred such a case. to an outside agency.
“The sheriff didn’t want to investigate this from the start,” Luna said. “You cannot examine your political opponents or enemies.”
Villanueva fired back: “He is not going to touch public corruption. He won’t touch it with a 3 meter high pole, because his job as a puppet is to look the other way.”
Luna suggested that Villanueva routinely shifts the responsibility for mistakes that occurred during his watch — such as the increase in homicides in the sheriff’s jurisdiction — onto the supervisors and the district attorney. The violent crime in Long Beach took place under his watch, Luna said.
“I worked for the same district attorney as everyone else in LA County,” Luna said. “Stop making excuses. Let’s get the job done.”
The candidates were asked about homelessness, one of the most pressing issues for voters in the province. Luna criticized Villanueva for going in front of news cameras to inaccurately and unfairly take credit for clearing camps in Venice and elsewhere, while Villanueva replied that Luna had no plan to deal with the crisis.
When asked how he would explain what a moderator was saying, his recent comment that black people were “prone to crime,” Villanueva dodged the question. Instead, he tried to turn attention to Luna, claiming he mishandled an incident in Long Beach in which a homicide unit member drew a family tree of convicted murderers with a noose around a black man’s neck.
Luna replied that he reported the drawing correctly and that it had been investigated, but Villanueva said an officer who expressed concern about the episode faced retaliation.
The candidates competed to present themselves as the person best equipped to run the agency, but they often lacked detail when it came to saying how they would tackle particular problems.
Luna presented herself as an employee who would improve the Sheriff’s Department’s working relationship with other district leaders. Villanueva defended his more combative approach, saying he stood up to attempts to reduce the department’s resources.
“So if they put the department on a staff freeze, what am I going to do? Greet it with open arms?” said Villanueva. “Of course I will object.”
The debate, held Wednesday night at the Skirball Cultural Center and broadcast live, was co-hosted by the Los Angeles Times.
In the June primaries, Villanueva and Luna emerged as clear favorites from a crowded field of candidates and advanced to a runoff in November.
Little known outside of Long Beach, Luna finished just a few percentage points behind Villanueva, who won about 31% of the vote. The count was widely seen as a mediocre result for a sitting sheriff and left Villanueva looking vulnerable going into the head-to-head race.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Luna is the lack of brand awareness among voters, facing a highly visible incumbent sheriff who often makes headlines. Villanueva, meanwhile, is a controversial figure who has come under criticism for numerous scandals under his watch.
Recently, the California Attorney General took control of the Sheriff’s Department’s long-running public corruption investigation, involving Kuehl and others, amid mounting questions about the department’s handling of the investigation.
Critics have claimed that despite publicly saying that he withdrew from the investigation, Villanueva is using a secret public corruption unit he has set up to attack political enemies.
He has also ramped up the issuance of concealed weapons permits – by 2020 he promised to increase the number of permits by five times and has far exceeded that target.
A Times investigation last week found that among the thousands of people who have been given permission to carry weapons in public under Villanueva, are dozens of donors to his election campaigns and others with special ties to the sheriff.
These people often gave dubious reasons why they needed to arm themselves, got their permits faster than the average wait, or were assisted by two agents who worked directly for Villanueva.
A poll conducted last month by UC Berkeley and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times found Luna was slightly ahead of Villanueva and heavily favored by liberals and Democrats, while Villanueva was more popular among conservative and Republican voters.
The political division illustrates a significant shift in Villanueva’s support base since 2018, when he courted progressive Democrats with a promise to kick immigration officers out of LA County jails at a time when many left-wing voters were frustrated over the crackdown on former Democrats. President Trump. line of immigration policy.
The platform sparked an unlikely shock when Villanueva, a longtime registered Democrat, became the first challenger to topple a sitting sheriff in more than a century.
Villanueva has since rebranded himself as a more conservative, law-and-order sheriff and candidate, opposing the “awakened left” and attempts to “defund” law enforcement while addressing voters’ frustrations over the homeless crisis and crime. .
Luna, meanwhile, has registered much of his life as a Republican. He registered as a Democrat in 2020 after switching from Republican to no-party affiliation earlier in 2018, according to voter data.
Despite Luna’s past as a Republican, much of the county’s Democratic party machine is merging behind him in an effort to overthrow Villanueva. The LA County Democratic Party and all five members of the Board of Trustees, all but one leaning to the left, support Luna.
Luna also announced earlier this month that the seven other candidates running for sheriff in the primaries had backed him.