sheriff's race

Retired LA County sheriff's Lt. Alex Villanueva, left, and current LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

A retired sheriff’s lieutenant who was significantly outranked and outspent by incumbent Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell pulled ahead early Wednesday to take a slim lead in a potentially stunning upset.

With all precincts reporting, McDonnell — elected in 2014 promising reform after a high-profile corruption and jail-abuse scandal snared the department’s top brass — fell to less than a percentage point behind Alex Villanueva, according to election results.

Villanueva had 50.15 percent of the vote to McDonnell’s 49.85 percent.

Provisional ballots received at polling stations on Election Day as well as vote-by-mail ballots received at the Los Angles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s Office through this Friday still need to be counted, according to election officials. It was not immediately clear how many that could be.

“Today, the people of Los Angeles had the choice to build a new vision for what law enforcement in our communities should look like,” Villanueva said in a written statement. “I’m extremely humbled that the voters of Los Angeles County chose the right path. …

“I believe that no matter where you’re from, where you live, where you pray, or the color of your skin – your Sheriff’s Department will protect you and keep you safe,” he said. “I want to thank all of the Angelenos who joined the fight to make their voice heard in your county Sheriff’s Department.”

McDonnell said on Facebook he’s “very proud” of the campaign this team ran “with integrity,” and he is optimistic about the thousands of outstanding vote-by-mail and provisional ballots that had yet to be counted.

“Every vote should be counted, and every voice should be heard,” McDonnell said. “I’m grateful for your support, and hopeful that we can work together for four more years of progress and reform.”

Villanueva, a Hacienda Heights resident, forced McDonnell into a runoff for the job in June, a scenario that has rarely played out in the last century. As a retired lieutenant, he is six ranks below the rank of sheriff.

“It’s historic – incumbent sheriffs don’t lose re-election,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and a political science professor.

But Villanueva had three big advantages, Guerra said. He appealed to Latino voters in a county that’s nearly half Latino, he received the Los Angeles County Democratic Party endorsement as well as the backing of two powerful unions: the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

While the county’s political elite supported the experienced McDonnell, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, “it shows that endorsements don’t matter if they don’t come with money or organization,” Guerra said.

The unions that supported Villanueva not only gave money but used their members to campaign and were heavily focused on this race, he added.

In addition, voters may not have been able to distinguish the candidates’ different levels of experience because Villanueva’s ballot designation – sheriff’s lieutenant – also included the word sheriff in it, Guerra said.

“That ballot designation muted one of McDonnell’s major points – that he had more experience,” he said.

McDonnell, a former chief of the Long Beach Police Department and a 29-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, was first elected in a landslide four years ago.

He pledged to bring change to the department after some of its top brass — including former Sheriff Lee Baca — received prison sentences for their roles in covering up abuse of inmates in the county’s jail system.

Before retiring in February, Villanueva was a watch commander at the sheriff’s Pico Rivera station, a position in which he oversaw the station’s employees during his shifts.

He spent more than three decades with the department, which, he said, hit “rock bottom” in morale under the current sheriff.

Hiring more deputies and raising hiring standards would be among his priorities as sheriff, he said.

Villanueva, who was raised mostly in Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish, has been a vocal critic of President Donald Trump and his administration’s hard-line immigration policies.

McDonnell, for his part, lobbied to weaken earlier versions of Senate Bill 54, also known as the ‘Sanctuary State’ bill, that became law and went into effect this year. The sheriff says he has worked hard to strike a balance between public safety and public trust on this issue.

McDonnell has pointed to several reforms made in the last four years to increase accountability and transparency, including implementing a public-data-sharing project and putting more cameras in the jails. He noted that the most severe type of uses of force in the jail has become “almost non-existent” under his watch.

But McDonnell, whose endorsements include the union representing some of the department’s higher-ranking officers and others, did not succeed in becoming a household name these last four years, Guerra said.

That’s partly because he lacked “the personality,” Guerra said. But it’s also tough to distinguish oneself in a county of more than 10 million people with so many other higher-profile campaigns going on.

That could have been offset had McDonnell started campaigning earlier and raised more money to potentially avoid the November runoff, he said.

McDonnell raised about $1.2 million for this campaign compared to Villanueva’s roughly $156,000, according to the most-recent campaign contribution records available.

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