Alex Villanueva, the combative leader of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, conceded defeat on Tuesday following a bitterly fought contest with Robert Luna, a former Long Beach police chief, for one of the nation’s most powerful law enforcement jobs.
“I want to wish the incoming sheriff well,” he said in a meandering news conference, during which he never said he lost, although he announced a new Twitter handle and said he would spend the next two weeks visiting everyone in the department. “They’re the true heroes,” he said, his voice emotional.
In early tallies, Mr. Villanueva quickly fell behind his challenger. As of Monday, he continued to trail Mr. Luna by roughly 20 percentage points, but with some 655,000 ballots left to count, The Associated Press has not formally declared a winner. In Los Angeles, it takes longer to count votes because many residents cast their ballots by mail.
Before conceding, Sheriff Villanueva spent 20 minutes railing against concerns that he has routinely resisted oversight. He blamed his critics, sometimes by name, for spreading what he said were false narratives about his tenure and delivered an accounting of his accomplishments.
Until the end, he portrayed himself as an outsider willing to confront the political establishment — even as watchdogs and opponents accused him of some of the same abuses he came into office vowing to combat.
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He said a politician told him early on that you can be a reformer, or you can be re-elected. You have to pick one. “I’m proud to say I’m a reformer,” he said. “I have no desire to abandon who I am or my principles just to get re-elected.”
Mr. Luna, 56, grew up in East Los Angeles and had worked for the Long Beach Police Department for three decades. A longtime Republican, he switched to no party preference a few years ago and then registered as a Democrat in 2020 and campaigned this year for the nonpartisan office as the antithesis to Sheriff Villanueva.
Mr. Luna said in a statement that he was “deeply honored and humbled” by the vote.
Sheriff Villanueva’s time in office was underscored by antagonism toward those who challenged his authority. He feuded intensely with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which oversaw his department’s budget, and opened criminal investigations into people that resulted in no filing of charges, which suggested ulterior motives, according to the chair of his oversight commission.
Local leaders had clashed so often with Sheriff Villanueva that they added a measure to the ballot that would allow the Board of Supervisors to fire him. That measure was headed for easy passage, with a lead greater than the number of outstanding ballots — a sign that Angelenos had grown weary of the conflicts and distrustful of the sheriff.
Democrats had once rallied around Sheriff Villanueva, encouraged by his calls for transparency. But he soon displayed what some considered a political reversal, appearing on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and expressing disdain for “the woke left.”
Mr. Luna promised to restore public confidence in the Sheriff’s Department. Not widely known to voters and without the same connections to the department, he was able to attract supporters who had grown exasperated with the current sheriff’s behavior. He also emphasized a commitment to collaborating with public officials, including the Board of Supervisors.
The sheriff in Los Angeles oversees the largest sheriff’s department in the nation, with a $3.6 billion budget and 18,000 employees.