Former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna (L) faced off in a debate on Wednesday night, Sep. 21, 2022, against incumbent Alex Villanueva in the race for sheriff. Screenshot courtesy Fox11

By Robert Garrova and Frank Stoltze

Originally published Sep 22, 2022

In a combative debate Wednesday night incumbent L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva warned that his opponent, former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, would be a “puppet” of the Board of Supervisors if elected. Luna criticized Villanueva for his antagonistic attitude towards the board and other county agencies and officials.

“They want a puppet and that’s this person right here,” Villanueva said, pointing to Luna standing at a lectern a few feet away. “This is about the independence of the Sheriff’s Department, and checks and balances against the unlimited power of the Board of Supervisors.”

Countered Luna: “I’d stop this us versus them culture and mentality … Every time he brings up the Board of Supervisors there’s anger in his voice. He hates them. This is why public trust has been eroded.”

It was one of many exchanges that highlighted the stark difference in temperament between the candidates that voters face in the race during the one-hour televised event at the Skirball Cultural Center, which also aired live on the radio on 89.3 KPCC.

The sheriff has long portrayed himself as a lone reformer battling an entrenched bureaucracy and he did so again at the debate, criticizing the Metro board and L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón, in addition to the Board of Supervisors.

Luna, a 36-year-veteran law enforcement official, characterized himself as a “180-degree difference” from Villanueva. During the debate, he repeatedly said the sheriff was spreading misinformation.

Asked by one of the debate moderators to describe the state of the sheriff’s department in one word, Luna chose “disarray’ and Villanueva said “persevering.”

Here’s where the candidates came down on key issues.

Homelessness

Villanueva defended his record on homelessness saying his department had made significant improvements in places such as the Venice boardwalk. He said law enforcement’s job is to “regulate public space” and that people who are unhoused need shelter and the space needs to be returned to the community.

Luna said the status quo approach to homelessness is “absolutely not working” and that “we need to do a better job.” He criticized Villanueva for seeking the spotlight on successful encampment cleanups and not working better with community and government partners.

Deputy Gangs

Villanueva said he implemented a policy against deputy gangs that became a model for state legislation. At the same time, he said “deputy gangs has become a political buzzword. And it’s just like unicorns … I challenge you: name one, name a single deputy gang member.”

Luna said the sheriff’s response highlights his failures on the issue. “He doesn’t acknowledge they exist,” he said. “You can’t fix a problem you don’t know exists.”

Villanueva Comments on Black People

Villanueva was asked about comments he made to the L.A. Times that he believes Black people are inherently prone to criminality. He avoided answering it and instead accused Luna of failing to address racist literature that appeared at the Long Beach police department when Luna was a sergeant there in the 1990s. Luna denied the accusation.

Later, Villanueva said the sheriff’s department is a “model of inclusiveness” and that four of his 12 chiefs are Black.

Luna said the department has a troubled history with Black people.

“It’s evolved. It’s gotten better. But we have a long ways to go,” Luna said. “I’m going to work my tail off to do everything I can to work with all communities.”

Taxpayer Costs For Lawsuits

Asked to respond to large taxpayer expenses for legal settlements related to the sheriff’s department, Villanueva said lawsuits take years and most instances are related to issues that occurred before his time as sheriff. He sidestepped addressing graphic photos taken by sheriff’s deputies and others at the scene of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others. L.A. County has agreed to pay out more than $35 million to family members in that case.

Luna called for reforms and more accountability within the department to bring down costs. He also suggested that L.A. County’s office of County Counsel, which provides legal advice to county departments, among other roles, debrief juries to gain insights into how to change the trajectory. “You have to look in the mirror and hold yourself accountable,” Luna said.

Relationship With DA

The two candidates differed sharply on relations with Gascón.

Villanueva, who supported a failed effort to recall Gascón, said he has “no confidence” in him, claiming that Gascón’s approach of not prosecuting many low-level misdemeanors shows “he is not a district attorney — he is a second public defender. And that is jeopardizing the safety of every single man and woman here in Los Angeles County.”

“We can’t play pretend that we’re going to work together and have this wonderful relationship,” he said.

Luna said the relationship between sheriff and DA “is critical,” adding, ”I don’t agree with all of George Gascón’s policies, but my obligation is to work with him.”

Watch The Full Debate

How Did We Get Here?

Villanueva and Luna are headed to a runoff in the November election for Sheriff after the June primary where Villanueva received about 30% of the vote and Luna nearly 26%.

Villanueva’s four-year term as head of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department has been contentious, with the L.A. County Civilian Oversight Commission launching a “full-scale investigation” into alleged deputy gangs, highly-criticized deputy shootings and allegations of deputy misconduct within the L.A. County Jail system.

Over the past several years, Villanueva has frequently clashed with the Civilian Oversight Commission. In October, the Commission called on Villanueva to resign, citing his alleged failure to rein in “violent deputy cliques or gangs” operating in the Compton and East L.A. stations and his alleged attempts to block efforts to “ensure independent oversight of deputy-involved shooting investigations,” among several other complaints.

The sheriff, who oversees more than 9,000 sworn deputies, also held press conferences and went to social media to blast members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and reporters covering his department.

In July, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to ask voters in November for the power to remove a sitting Sheriff. The vote came after repeated refusals from Villanueva to cooperate with the Civilian Oversight Commission, which had subpoenaed him to testify as part of its investigation into alleged deputy gangs. Villanueva has called the investigation a “political witch-hunt” and said the board’s efforts to gain the power to remove him are an attempt to “cheat the system.”

The Backstory On Villanueva And Luna

Villanueva’s rise to power was in many ways unexpected. At the time of his 2018 election and victory over incumbent Jim McDonnell , the department was still dealing with the fallout from a corruption scandal that gave former Sheriff Lee Baca a three-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy in blocking an FBI investigation into inmate abuse at an L.A. County jail.

In interviews, Luna, a former teenage reserve officer, has painted himself as a “180-degree difference” from Villanueva. Voters are “tired of a sheriff who doesn’t collaborate, who makes excuses, who blames everybody else for the challenges that we face together,” Luna told LAist reporter Emily Elena Dugdale.

Leading up to the debate, last week, L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies served a search warrant on the home of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and others as part of an investigation into possible corruption involving a contract between L.A. Metro and a local nonprofit.

Kuehl called the early morning search of her home “pure harassment” by a department she has been critical of in the past. On Tuesday, Attorney General Rob Bonta took control of the investigation and sidelined the Sheriff’s Department, saying that the move was in the “public interest.”

During the debate Villanueva defended his department’s handling of the case, dismissing suggestions that he should have handed off the investigation to another agency in the first place, since the targets included an official who votes on his budget and another who sits on the oversight commission.

Referring to court challenges of the search warrants, the sheriff said “the board has been fighting tooth and nail to prevent the evidence seized in search warrants to be revealed. Why is this? That is the important question.”

Luna backed the attorney general’s move, arguing the Sheriff’s Department had no business being involved in the case. “You cannot investigate your political opponents or enemies,” he said.

Under Luna, the Long Beach Police department has seen its own share of criticism, including use of force against protestors and the use of a text service that deleted communication between officers. The service was later suspended after civil liberties groups and others raised concerns about concealing evidence.

Luna is the son of a Sinaloan immigrant father and a Modesto-born mother with roots in Michoacán, and spent his early years growing up in East L.A before moving to Santa Fe Springs.

The sheriff’s election is officially nonpartisan. Villanueva was the first Democrat elected to the role in several decades when he unseated incumbent Jim McDonnell in 2018.

Luna was a registered Republican until 2018 and re-registered as a Democrat.

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