Luna isn’t a politician. Can he unseat Villanueva as sheriff?

Written by Jenna Kagel and Amy Ta

Former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, right, currently has a 10-point lead over incumbent Sheriff Alex Villanueva, left. That’s according to a poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. Photos by Amy Ta (Villanueva) and Shutterstock (Luna).

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is up against former Long Beach Police Department Chief Robert Luna in the midterm elections. He faces a different political landscape than he did four years ago and a strong opponent in Luna. What challenges does each candidate face? 

While Villanueva is a registered Democrat, his party has declined to endorse his second term, and recent polls show him trailing his opponent. He began his term with the controversial rehiring of a deputy who was fired for allegations of domestic abuse. Over time, scandal and a lack of accountability have followed the self-proclaimed “law and order” candidate. 

That includes accusations of going after his opponents politically, such as LA County Board of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, says Sonja Diaz, the founding director UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Institute. 

“They really started at the community level and have now risen to where people who are on payroll for the county, who also serve at the pleasure of voters, are really finding themselves at wit's end trying to ensure accountability and transparency over this department,” Diaz tells KCRW.

She explains that the factors that helped Villanueva win office, like the public’s desire for accountability after the scandals of his predecessor, are no longer in play, given his own resistance to oversight.

Measure A, which is on the November ballot, would allow the LA County Board of Supervisors to remove a sitting sheriff for cause under a four-fifths vote. The measure is a direct response to the frustrations with Villanueva’s leadership. 

While Villanueva claims the initiative is a way to take power away from him, Diaz sees it differently: “It's not something to be interpreted as taking away independence, but frankly, really thinking about checks and balances in the wake of a leader who refuses to collaborate and cooperate with other county officials.”

If Villanueva wins reelection, Diaz says, “I see a lot of federal and possibly state law enforcement investigations of the Sheriff's Department. There's already some that are ongoing, and this will come at a cost to county residents, but also to the county's budget.”

Robert Luna, who grew up in East LA and spent seven years as chief of the Long Beach Police Department before deciding to retire last year, is the lesser-known candidate. But he’s already polling 10 points ahead of the incumbent, according to a poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. 

Luna has so far won the support of all five supervisors and the Democratic Party of LA County, says Jeremiah Dobruck, managing editor of the Long Beach Post. 

He says the two are opposites in many ways: “Whereas Villaneuva has clashed repeatedly with county supervisors and any kind of civilian authority, Luna has had a very good working relationship while he was chief. Luna is also not a politician. Villanueva, whatever you want to say about him, he is a very skilled politician. He's been good at knowing where to attack Luna. And that is not Luna’s strength — this is the first time he's run for political office. But I think the best way to probably think about it is: Luna is running on working with people … and that is absolutely not Villanueva.” 

However, he adds that there are questions about how Luna would handle the kinds of skepticism and pushback he might face if he heads LA’s Sheriff’s Department, especially since he wasn’t pressed much by civilian leadership in Long Beach. 

Dobruck points out that Long Beach has done things its own way for a long time. For example, he says, “When an officer shoots someone here in Long Beach … there's a big investigation that kicks off to determine if there's any criminal liability on the part of that officer. … Long Beach does this differently than just about anywhere we could find. … Instead of actually … trying to interview the officer who pulled the trigger, they have that officer write a report about it. … They get feedback to some extent from the investigators … before they turn in that report. … It's brought some concern that it essentially heightens the conflict of interest you might have with a department investigating itself.”

Nonetheless, on the campaign trail, Luna has touted that officer-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents decreased while he was chief. Dobruck confirms those stats are true, but he says it’s unclear if those reductions are the results of Luna’s policies. 

And, he adds, “Long Beach actually, per capita, was using force a lot more often than police departments of its size. So yes, there's a reduction. But they were also ahead of the pack to some extent.”

Overall, Dobruck wants voters to know that Luna is not a politician, but a police officer. 

“He is in the details of policy and policing. But it also means he is not necessarily in the thick of all the political forces that might pull at you as the sheriff of a large sheriff's department.”