The California primaries have been over for a month and a half, and the real campaigning for the November general election won’t be fully geared up until after Labor Day. Thus it seemed like a good time to try to determine how Los Angeles County Sheriff candidate Alex Villanueva managed to get 33.20 percent of the vote in early June, to incumbent Jim McDonnell’s 47.87 percent—turning what should have been an easy cruise to reelection into what now appears to be a genuine horse race.
After all, Villanueva began with zero name recognition, and a puny campaign fund that amounted to around $27,000 and change. Whereas Sheriff McDonnell had $586,000 in the bank before the primary.
Candidate number three, Bob Lindsey, who got a respectable 18.9 percent of the vote, had a strong following among the rank and file of the LASD, had $330,000 in his war chest, plus an additional $410,000 from a group of independent supporters. Added together, this put Lindsey’s available funds well past the sheriff’s campaign cash.
Villanueva is a veteran of the U.S. Air-force who spent more than thirty years with the LA County Sheriff’s Department, retiring earlier this year with the rank of lieutenant. He has never run a police agency of any kind. Nor was he high enough up on the LASD food chain when he retired to have had any breadth of command experience at the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.
Jim McDonnell, in contrast, prior to being elected to lead the LASD in November 2014, was chief of the Long Beach PD for five years. Before that, he was second in command of the Los Angeles Police Department, under then chief Bill Bratton.
So how did this unknown former lieutenant manage to motivate enough voters to force a runoff, when an incumbent LA County Sheriff hasn’t lost to a challenger in over 100 years?
The Latino vote
In a series of recent conversations with WitnessLA, Villanueva outlined three main strategies he used to gather votes.
First of all, he did the obvious. He engaged in aggressive outreach to leaders of the county’s Latino community, and explained his candidacy and why he thought they should back him. (Villanueva was born to a Puerto Rican father, and a Polish American mother and speaks fluent Spanish.)
As to how he sold himself to some of the county’s main Latino voter organizations when they interviewed him for possible endorsements, Villanueva told us, in addition to the ways he intended to reform the LASD, he talked at length about his plans around such topics as immigration, dealing better with the county’s mentally ill, how to address over-incarceration, the importance of community engagement, and generally staked out a more progressive set of policy positions than that of the sitting sheriff, while also emphasizing public safety.
“There’s so much inaccuracy going around about immigration policy,” Villanueva said he told the various caucuses and clubs he was pitching. “For instance, people don’t know that SB 54 allows for the transfer of dangerous felons to ICE custody, which it does. When you see certain people write about it, they claim that everybody’s running around willy-nilly free. But that’s not the case at all.”
This strategy found fertile ground, and produced positive nods from such organizations as the Chicano Latino Caucus, which bills itself as the largest Latino Democratic party organization in the nation.
“We need leaders that will ensure the rights of all are protected, while ethically and morally enforcing the rule of law,” wrote Carlos Acala, the chair of the CLC, in his statement announcing the group’s endorsement of Villanueva.
“The person holding the office of the Los Angeles County Sheriff is crucial at this time in our history not only for Latinos but all residents of Los Angeles County. Alex Villanueva will make this a top priority.”
Jim McDonnell certainly has his own Latino endorsers, like the Mexican American Bar Association, and others. He has also gathered support from major figures in the county, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, District Attorney Jackie Lacey, Shaquille O’Neal, and the like.
Yet, perhaps unworried about the competition, the sheriff didn’t decide to put up a campaign website until mid April, and even then it was oddly minimal.
Meanwhile, Villanueva went tirelessly after organizations whose sole existence has to do with elections and voters.
And, on top of the political clubs, he also persuaded people like former member of the the LA County Supervisors, Gloria Molina, and civil rights icon and co-founder of the Farm Workers movement, Dolores Huerta, to get on board.
“We need a sheriff who will stand up to [Trump],” Huerta wrote to supporters of Villanueva, “not fraternize with him.”
Finding actual voters
In addition to hitting up Latino voters groups, Villanueva, a lifelong Democrat, said he also went to nearly every Democratic club and group of progressive voters that would give him a hearing.
First he went to the LA County Democratic Party, which recommends that one read their 25-page guidebook before one even thinks about beginning the process of applying for their possible endorsement.
Yet, after the 18- person LACP endorsement committee questioned Villanueva for an hour or so, they enthusiastically gave him the nod. So did at least 25 other democratic and progressive voter clubs.
The clubs ranged from the highly active Los Angeles County Young Democrats, to the LA Feel the Bern Democratic Club, to the Stonewall Democrats, with whom Villanueva marched in LA’s Gay Pride parade the weekend after the primary.
So how much difference did these various endorsements make?
It’s hard to say.
The Santa Monica Democratic Club, together with its sister westside democratic clubs, bragged about making 40,000 get out the vote calls to westside voters right before the primary, with flip the house the mantra they used to spur other democrats to action.
So, if a candidate like Villanueva is among those endorsed by these clubs which—with national politics in mind—are putting lots of energy this year into hectoring their members to go to the polls, are those endorsements likely to produce more votes than in other years, even for candidates running in local races?
Some experts seem to think so, citing the fact that, in this off year primary election with no presidential candidates on the ballot, California saw a surprisingly higher than usual voter turnout this past June.
As David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University told CalMatters earlier this month, “The reason for the higher turnout is because of what’s going on in Washington D.C.,” not what’s happening in individual California races.
Yet in local races, like the race for LA County Sheriff, candidates like Villanueva could arguably reap collateral benefits from all that #resist/flip-the-house energy.
The magic of social media
The third prong of Alex Villanueva’s bargain-priced campaign was his use of social media.
He told us that the campaign spent money on search engine optimization “on Google and Bing,” and paid for pop-up ads on Facebook, Instagram and the like. For instance, an invitation to attend Villanueva’s upcoming July 19, fundraiser, presently shows up on the LA Feel the Bern Democratic Club’s Facebook page. And if one keeps scrolling the candidate makes additional appearances on the same Facebook page, and others like it.
Furthermore, to remind prospective voters of the candidate’s existence, Villanueva and his people did their best to create a constant stream of their own mini news flashes. When he was interviewed on KPPC’s Airtalk, or for popular local podcasts, Villanueva’s people went into posting and sharing overdrive on various forms of social media, which the candidate said triggered a lot of resharing and reposting. All this, in turn, produced spikes in visits to the campaign’s website, he said.
To continue get his name out there, when Villanueva wasn’t booked to speak to a group, or to attend a backyard barbecue somewhere in the county, he often just showed up at voter-oriented events to gladhand.
For instance, on June 2, the weekend before the California primary, Bernie Sanders hosted an event with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors and others, “to discuss the steps we must take to radically reform our broken justice system.”
The very popular 3 p.m. event, held at the historic Million Dollar Theater in downtown LA, was free. But it was first come, first-to-get-a-seat situation, thus eager would-be attendees reportedly began lining up before noon. Villanueva showed up early too, not to speak at the event, to which he wasn’t invited, but to work the line of those waiting, may of whom were members of the LA County Feel the Bern Democratic Club, and other progressive Dem groups.
As he went through the line chatting and taking occasional selfies, he was gratified to learn that “a lot of people I’d never met already knew who I was.”
Naturally, upon leaving, he posted the selfies, which then were shared and reshared.
“When you have a campaign,” Villanueva told us, “you have to keep turning out content if you want to get views.”
Thus his campaign generated new photos and quickie videos regularly, “and they drew audiences when we posted and shared them on Facebook,” Villanueva said. “They took off on their own.”
A look at the campaign’s YouTube page shows that, while many of Villanueva’s videos just have a few hundred or a thousand views at most, one 30-sec. campaign video [see above] which also includes the candidate’s wife and the family dog, has gotten over 39,000 views.
So what does all this mean for the general election?
After the primary, Sheriff McDonnell said in an emailed statement that he looked “forward to the general election campaign, continuing to earn the support of the voters, and most of all protecting the people of Los Angeles County.”
He was, he said, “grateful to the voters of Los Angeles County for their confidence in our efforts to implement serious reforms in the Department and in the jail system while improving public safety for everyone.
“Journalists have pointed out that I ‘inherited a Department rotted by corruption,” the sheriff continued. “A member of the Civilian Oversight Commission said that, before I was elected, the Department was ‘in utter chaos.’ I have provided a steady hand to restore public confidence in the Department, while protecting our communities and driving down crime rates. We are in a good place but with much work that remains including adding to the more than 2,000 deputy sheriff trainees hired since my last election. In all things important to our communities, we are moving forward.”
Villanueva, who entered the race because he does not believe that McDonnell has delivered the reform he promised, said he’s been gratified by the post-primary response to his message.
“If people discounted us at the beginning,” he said, “they’re not doing it now.”
This means that fundraising has become easier. “Rather than chasing resources, resources are coming toward us,” he said. “Doors that were closed are starting to open.”
Villanueva also said he looks forward to the upcoming debates with McDonnell, where he believes he can do well.
“And, for the home stretch you’ll see a lot more conventional campaigning from us.”
So, does all this mean that Alex Villanueva has a real chance? When we asked an elections-expert source close to Jim McDonnell’s campaign, he gave us a firm no, suggesting that with his 33 percent, Villanueva, had hit his ceiling, which mostly consisted of Latino voters.
Brian Moriguchi—president of the LA County Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA), which is the LASD’s main supervisors union—feels otherwise, and told us he believes the answer is yes, Villanueva has a real chance at an upset.
“Alex did what we never thought he could do,” Moriguchi said. “So now we see this as very competitive race.”
The race for sheriff is also the most important race “that directly impacts our members,” said Moriguchi. “So based on that, we intend to take it very seriously.”
With this in mind, the PPOA has already done video interviews with both McDonnell and Villanueva. “We’ll put those online in the next week or so, for our members and the public to see.”
The union will also host a debate for the candidates on July 23, together with the League of Women Voters, and others, which anyone may attend, and which will also be live streamed.
“Afterward,” said Moriguchi, “we will poll our members to get their feelings on the candidates.” In addition, the union plans to hire polling firm to do a public poll as well, to see how both candidates appear to be faring with regular voters.
After gathering all that information together, Moriguchi said, the union’s “legislative committee” will meet to decide whom they intend to support.
The committee will also decide whether or not PPOA wants to give money to their candidate of choice, and if so, how much?
The possibility of fiscal support from the union is no small matter, since PPOA has a seven figures worth of funds it could afford to offer to to Sheriff Jim McDonnell or would-be-sheriff Alex Villanueva, should it wish to do so.
And the union doesn’t rule out the possibility of such a sizable donation to one candidate or the other.
“I think this is an unusual election,” Moriguchi said.
So it seems.