Another stereotype bites the dust.
Though technically the elected position of Los Angeles County Sheriff is non-partisan, the long-held presumption is that anything to do with law enforcement is the political province of “law and order” Republicans.
But the mega-turnout Nov. 6, 2018 election flipped that script, with dark horse retired sheriff’s lieutenant Alex Villanueva—who ran as a Democrat—defeating former Republican incumbent Jim McDonnell by 141,596 votes or 53% to 47%.
Villanueva, who has a Ph.D in Public Administration from La Verne University but no top command experience, now has the opportunity to put his Democratic Party ideals into effect as he assumes leadership over 9,500 sworn deputies, 8,000 civilians—and perhaps his most daunting challenge, running the county’s jails in a county larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island with roughly 10.6 million people.
“I’ve been a Democrat my entire life. I always believe in the little guy. I don’t believe in betting on Goliath; I always bet on David,” Villanueva tells the Los Angeles Blade by phone on Dec. 5, his first official day on the job, referring to the biblical match up between the strong giant and the little guy with a rock and a slingshot.
“Corporate America is well-represented by the Republican Party and I think the Democratic Party shares my values, which is defending the rights of those who sometimes can’t speak for themselves—the under-privileged, the under-represented—they need to have an equal say in government.”
Villanueva received the endorsement of the LA County Democratic Party, chaired by out gay Mark Gonzalez, and Stonewall Democrats, with whom he marched in the CSW Pride parade. But participating in Pride has been standard fair since Jewish Republican Sherman Block was Sheriff. The primary difference between Villanueva and Block, Lee Baca and Jim McDonnell, apart from political party preference, is that the new sheriff has a history of being disruptive in pushing back against perceived discrimination.
And while his predecessors may have been OK with LGBT people, Villanueva is a proven ally.
“I recognize LGBT people not only as individuals but as a distinct minority,” Villanueva says, a belief he picked up over the years, through a gay nephew and gay friends. “And as I got older and started to make employment decisions, I started to realize, wow, there’s a lot of these individuals everywhere, in all walks of life and they’re deserving of being treated same as everyone else.”
Additionally, as former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa often pointed out during his long public service, the new sheriff says the old stereotype of straight Latino men disparaging LGBT people as weak is disappearing, even in law enforcement.
“That perception is changing,” Villanueva says. “If you look at the younger generation, our millennials, they’re a lot more inclusive and open-minded about perceptions than the older crowd. The younger crowd is more accepting because they grew up in an environment where there’s more inclusiveness.”
Villanueva, 55, has direct experience as the underdog, undergirding his deep desire to help people. Born in Chicago to a Polish-American mother and a Puerto Rican father, Villanueva moved around a lot, running from bullies in New York before landing in Puerto Rico at age 9, where he had to learn Spanish. He served stints in the US Air Force, Air National Guard and the California Army National Guard before signing up the Sheriff’s Department. His first assignment was in the county jails where the smoke was so heavy, he proposed a smoking ban. Though initially rejected by a commander, Block eventually put the ban into effect.
In 1997, studying for his master’s degree in public administration, Villanueva wrote a stinging critique of the department’s promotion process, arguing it discriminated against Latinos. By the mid-2000s, the experience first hit home when he was passed over for a sergeant’s position.
“Villanueva conducted a diversity study and determined that Latino deputies were underrepresented. He took his findings to a commander who encouraged Villanueva to stop pushing ‘the brown thing,’ according to the lawsuit. He eventually settled the matter,” the LA Times reported.
The discrimination continued and Villanueva resigned after being passed over four times for a captain’s job, despite his qualifications. He extrapolates that experience to the possible impacts on LGBT deputies.
“We want to reach out to the LGBTQ community,” he says. “We want them to be represented on the department. And we’re going to do a lot of outreach to get them to apply. That’s very important to be a truly representative bureaucracy. We have to be a reflection of our community. And if they’re not reflected in the organization, in our hiring and in our promotional practices, then we’re not truly a representative organization.”
That’s not just rhetoric. Villanueva notes that when he and his wife Vivian became small business owners of a CrossFit gym in Whittier, one of their first hires was LGBT. “My campaign staff, my nephew – LGBT. And as a transition team, we had LGBT members. Actually every organization where I’ve been responsible for hiring, I hired LGBT,” he says.
Villanueva put his commitment to diversity and equality on the record during his long career, during the campaign and during his Dec. 3 swearing-in before a packed auditorium at the East Los Angeles College, where he once served as a campus police officer.
“This was a rare moment in history where we not only had the opportunity but courage and responsibility to challenge an existing power, to ensure that no matter where you’re from, where you live, how you pray, the color of your skin, your sheriff’s department will work to protect you and keep you safe,” Villanueva said to much applause.
One key factor that distinguished Villanueva from McDonnell was over SB 54, California’s “sanctuary state” bill, authored by LGBT ally State Sen. Kevin De Leon. McDonnell disagreed with the law that prohibits state and local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. By contrast, Villanueva tells the Los Angeles Blade, “I intend on kicking them out of the country jails. We’re going to honor SB 54.”
“You can live in L.A. County with dignity, safety, and yes, sanctuary,” Villanueva supporter De León said from the podium at the swearing-in ceremony. “The country is watching very closely.”
Treating people with dignity extends to transgender people who might engage in sex work and be incarcerated in county jails.
“We do not want to stigmatize people who are in sex work,” Villanueva says. “I recognize that it’s not a career choice for most people, it’s by necessity. And we’re not going to harm them more than they’ve already put themselves in harms way. When they do wind up, unfortunately, in our jail system, we’re going to make sure they’re treated with dignity with respect. We’re going to afford them all the privacies we can. Of course, there are some physical constraints because of the outlay of our jail system. But we’re definitely going to make sure they’re treated the way they want to be treated—assuming, of course, that they follow all the rules and regulations of the jail.”
Though the county jails are the focus of much attention regarding alleged abuse of both prisoners and jailers, Villanueva says he is not up to speed on the issue of HIV/AIDS prevention in county jails.
“I have to take a long hard look at it. I have to see what our current practices are. We’re assessing all of the practices of the county system right now, including what we’re doing in the jails and access to care,” he says. “We’re scrutinizing them and making sure we comply with current laws that are on the books. And that we make sure we’re doing everything with the best interest of the community at heart. But that one (HIV/AIDS prevention)–I have to find out more before I can say what we’re doing. I just walked in the front door.”
Reminded that Sheriff Block, as well as then-LAPD Chief Bernie Parks, followed then-LA Mayor Richard Riordan’s when he declared a state of emergency in the City of Los Angeles to allow for HIV prevention needle exchange programs to operate without law enforcement interference, despite an edict from then-Attorney General Dan Lungren, Villanueva says he has a different view of the problem of addiction. block in harm reduction – needle exchange.
“I view drug addiction as a health problem, not a criminal problem and I’m going to take it in that direction,” he says. “When it comes to people actually selling drugs and getting people addicted to drugs, I view that as a criminal matter. But we’re going to treat drug addiction as the health problem that it is.”
One particularly moving moment during his swearing-in ceremony was when Villaneuva turned to his wife Vivian, whom he met when she was training to become a deputy at the sheriff’s East L.A. station and thanked her for sticking by him.
“You bared the brunt of retaliation leveled my way for years,” he said.
After he concluded his remarks, Villanueva went over to his wife and kissed and embraced her, in a moment not only moving for his audience of supporters but also for those watching on the live stream of the ceremony.
“Shocking, we are human,” Villanueva tells the Los Angeles Blade.