Robert Luna, a little-known retired police chief from Long Beach, will be the next sheriff of Los Angeles County after he soundly beat the incumbent, Alex Villanueva, who leaves office in the wake of a single term marred by the upheaval and discord he sowed.
With Luna holding a commanding 20-percentage-point lead in the vote count and the number of ballots yet to be tallied shrinking by the day, Villanueva conceded the race Tuesday.
"I want to wish the incoming sheriff well," Villanueva said at the end of a rambling concession speech. "The safety of the community depends on him succeeding."
Saying he was "deeply honored and humbled" voters had elected him, Luna said in a statement that his victory signaled "a clear mandate to bring new leadership and accountability to the Sheriff’s Department."
"I look forward to working with the talented and courageous sworn and professional staff of the Sheriff’s Department who are dedicated to keeping our communities safe," he said.
Dislike for Villanueva and his antagonistic style of rule played out elsewhere on the ballot as well: Measure A, which rewrites the county charter to give the Board of Supervisors the power to fire a sitting sheriff, looks likely to pass overwhelmingly, with about 70% of voters approving it so far. Supervisors put the measure to voters after years spent battling with Villanueva.
The results were a resounding rebuke of Villanueva's four chaotic years in office — a tenure during which he morphed from an upstart candidate buoyed by the support of progressive voters into a conservative, combative lawman who clashed endlessly with elected officials and others who oversee him and the department.
Luna's victory means another turnover in leadership for the Sheriff's Department, which will see its fourth sheriff since Lee Baca resigned eight years ago amid a federal corruption probe that ultimately sent him to prison.
Luna is expected to be sworn in as the county's 34th sheriff in a ceremony next month. He inherits a large, unwieldy law enforcement agency — one of the nation's biggest — that runs a network of jails and patrols swaths of the sprawling county with stations from Lancaster to Catalina Island.
It is an organization that historically has operated in the shadow of the Los Angeles Police Department but is equal both in size and the role it plays in public safety. Luna will deal with long-standing problems and the fallout from recent scandals that erupted during Villanueva’s watch.
After decades of neglect, the county's jails will present Luna with no shortage of problems, as they have his predecessors. Treatment for the thousands of mentally ill people housed in the facilities is woefully insufficient, while the facilities in general are badly outdated.
Controversial shootings and other misconduct continue to be issues as well. The Board of Supervisors recently agreed to pay $47.6 million to settle several lawsuits alleging excessive force or negligence by sheriff’s deputies. The payouts included $8 million for the family of Andres Guardado, whose killing in 2020 by a deputy prompted large protests.
Perhaps Luna's most immediate challenge will be moving the department beyond the turmoil caused by Villanueva's combative approach.
He will need to rebuild the department's ties to public agencies across the county and the city of Los Angeles that Villanueva systematically ruptured by attacking other elected officials whom he said were part of an overly liberal "weaponized political machine" that allowed homelessness and crime to flourish. At the top of that list were the county supervisors, who control the sheriff's budget and clashed fiercely with Villanueva, as well as the Civilian Oversight Commission, which the supervisors appointed to watch over the Sheriff's Department.
Supervisor Hilda Solis said Tuesday that she looks forward to the board establishing a collaborative relationship with Luna.
"We didn't have one with this sheriff," Solis said. "Mr. Luna’s going to have to come in, get things together, reform it and make people understand that this is a job — everyone needs to have your trust."
Sean Kennedy, a member of the civilian oversight commission, said he expects that Luna will reverse course from the "controversies and stonewalling and attempts to intimidate oversight officials" under Villanueva.
"I hope our new sheriff is going to embrace civilian oversight so that we can work together and reduce the deputy shootings and implement long overdue 21st century policing reforms," Kennedy said.
Still unresolved are criminal investigations the Sheriff's Department opened into some of Villanueva's most ardent critics that led to widespread accusations that he was abusing the power of the office to attack adversaries. California's attorney general has taken over those investigations and is looking into the misconduct claims.
And lawsuits by top-ranking sheriff's officials alleging Villanueva covered up an incident in which a deputy kneeled on the head of a jail inmate remain open .
The oversight commission, meanwhile, is holding public hearings into gang-like groups of deputies that have operated in the department for decades. Villanueva came under fire for his handling of the problem, both downplaying its seriousness and claiming to have taken decisive steps to address it. He has also rebuffed subpoenas from the commission to answer questions about the groups and other problems under oath.
Luna, who headed the Long Beach police for seven years before retiring last year, campaigned as the level-headed alternative to Villanueva, promising to work collaboratively with the county officials and department watchdogs Villanueva chose to make into enemies.
But he has remained largely unknown outside Long Beach and, as an outsider to the Sheriff's Department, he'll face the challenge of winning over a rank and file that grew to appreciate Villanueva’s brash style. During the pandemic, for example, Villanueva refused to enforce the county's vaccine mandate — a move widely cheered by deputies.
Despite his relative obscurity to most L.A. County voters, Luna was long considered the front-runner in the race. Villanueva's showing in the June primary — he received 31% of the vote — was considered a poor result in a race that historically has favored the incumbent. Luna finished second in the primary, receiving 26% of the vote.
In his concession speech, Villanueva returned to a well-rehearsed grievance he has relied on heavily during his time in office and on the campaign trail that elected officials, The Times and others conspired to concoct a "false narrative" about him as an ineffective and ethically compromised leader.
"The whole thing on the deputy gangs was literally a campaign strategy," he added.
He mounted a defense of his time as sheriff, portraying himself as a lone figure willing to stand up to entrenched interests and corruption. He reviewed once again what he said were his top accomplishments, including kicking immigration agents out of the jails, outfitting deputies with body worn cameras and launching a wage theft task force.
"I remember a politician that I met early on ... they told me, well, you can be a reformer, or you can be reelected," he said. "I'm proud to say I'm a reformer. I have no desire to abandon ... my principles just to get reelected."
At the end, when it was time to make clear that he was, in fact, conceding defeat, the normally stoic Villanueva choked up. His wife, Vivian, a retired veteran of the department who played an outsize role in her husband's administration, joined him at the podium and patted him on the back.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.