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Why Does ‘Democrat’ Sheriff Villanueva Have So Many Far-Right Supporters?

The head of the largest sheriff’s department in the country has the support of several prominent far-right figures, some of whom are allegedly violent.

an illustrated portrait of sheriff alex villanueva
Illustration: Knock LA

Though incumbent sheriff candidate Alex Villanueva is technically a Democrat, the last several years have seen him much more closely tied to the far right. He has refused to fire unvaccinated deputies and actively expressed desire (sometimes turning that desire into action) for a stronger violent enforcement component of the County’s homelessness response. Appearances on Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network, and the conservative views he’s espoused there, have made him a familiar face among right-wingers. Villanueva’s adverse relationship with the media has led several outlets to compare him to former President Donald Trump. Villanueva will face Robert Luna in a runoff election in November 2022.

Villanueva’s campaign commercials touch on religion and prey on fears about crime, garnering comments of support from right-wing audiences. Public appearances and pictures of the sheriff suggest that this relationship is not one-sided: Villanueva is actively courting this support, including from several people accused of violence. On June 6, 2021, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party voted on a motion to formally call for the removal of LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Anyone, including the Villanueva campaign, who claims that the sheriff is a Democrat (or worse, “neither left nor right”) is lying to you. 

In Februrary 2022, anti-LGBT activist Sean Feucht posted a picture of himself alongside Sheriff Villanueva at an event hosted by the Council for National Policy (CNP) at the Laguna Niguel Ritz-Carlton. The CNP is in many ways an opaque organization, with rules stating that “speaker remarks are ‘off the record’” and not for circulation except with special permission. Recording at CNP events is expressly forbidden. So, it’s unclear which panels Villanueva attended during the multiday event or for how long.

a screenshot of a tweet by Sean Feucht showing a photo of Feucht and Sheriff Alex Villanueva posing for a photo captioned with the text "One of my pandemic heroes: Sheriff Alex Villanueva. He refused to enforce @GavinNewsom tyrannical mandates and backed up #LetUsWorship whenever we came to LA county! Thank Jesus for God-fearing American loving Sheriffs! #HoldTheLine"
Anti-LGBT activist Sean Feucht (left) and Sheriff Alex Villanueva (right) at Council for National Policy event. (Source: Twitter)

David Armiak works at Center for Media and Democracy and has been monitoring the CNP for several years. He told Knock LA that Villanueva’s Democratic Party allegiance seems odd for the CNP: “there [are] no Democrats involved in this, and if they are, then they moved to the right.” He describes CNP initiatives as “weaponized to move the needle in favor of Republicans,” mentioning CNP’s involvement in creating and recruiting for COVID disinformation group America’s Frontline Doctors.

A leaked agenda from the multiday conference included conservative flashpoints like accusing “wokeness” of “threatening the fabric of the nation,” supporting reversal of Roe v. Wade, and decrying “illegal immigrants being flown and released into cities.” The agenda lists a screening of the film Capitol Punishment, which aims to provide a sympathetic picture of the January 6 riots. Speakers included former Libertarian/Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder, Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, and National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd.

Audio provided by Armiak from one of the panels in February in Dana Point includes Victoria Cobb, head of Virginia’s chapter of the Family Research Council, which is designated as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Speaking quickly and excitedly, Cobb brags about the “protect every kid campaign,” which would “identify three to five school boards that would publicly resist implementing the statewide transgender standards,” “rally public support through a school board,” and “create a visible wave of resistance through the … campaign, social media, and all of the above.”

Sarah Stephens was a fringe candidate in the 2021 California gubernatorial recall election, often involved in Christian-forward right-wing events. In October, she posted a picture of herself with the sheriff saying “now even more of a DREAM- partnering to help the LA Sheriff to transform Los Angeles!” and began stating that her “Make Los Angeles Gold Again!” events were “supported by Sheriff Alex Villanueva.” Neither Villanueva nor Stephens would confirm when asked what, if any, support the sheriff gave.

a poster for a sarah stephens gubernatorial campaign event for November 6, 2021 that says "supported by sheriff villanueva"
Source: Sarah Stephens for Governor | Facebook

Though her events are often focused on pro-Christian homeless outreach and street cleaning, Stephens has been connected to several violent attacks. In two campaign ads for Stephens (now unlisted), Mercedes de Leon is featured. De Leon proudly displayed the stolen wig of a Black woman attacked on January 6, 2021, after an incident investigated as a hate crime.

At a Wi Spa protest in July 2021, filmmaker Rocky Romano was hit in the back of the head by Aaron Simmons with a rod. Internet sleuths were fast to not only disclose the identity of Simmons, but found that afterwards he entered the vehicle of Stephens as she drove him and several others away. Romano, who is a producer and director of documentary films with Winter’s Rock Entertainment and was filming the event, told Knock LA that when he was hit he “felt gray, numb. It felt like I was hit by something heavy.” Simmons pled no contest and received probation several months later. 

Romano added of Stephens that LAPD “did not [prosecute] Sarah Stephens, and … that she had claimed she had no idea what Aaron had done. Which was remarkable because, again, we were able to get the livestream footage where they jump in the car and they’re being told to keep their heads down.” Simmons yelled during a livestream in Stephens’ vehicle, “That felt so good, cracking him in the head, though.”

After Dijon Kizzee was fatally shot to death by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) deputies in 2020, protests erupted which resulted in dozens of arrests as well as numerous claims of police brutality. Several days after the nights of intense protests, Sheriff Villanueva held a press conference inviting “numerous community members from Westmont.” Among those speaking were congressional candidate Joe E. Collins III and right-wing provocateur Elsa Aldeguer.

It’s still unclear how speakers were chosen, but several of the “community members” that took the stage thanked Collins for the event. Collins was, at the time, a Trump-endorsed congressional candidate for California’s 43rd District. Collins was accused of using “sovereign citizen” “pseudo legal principles” in court. Robert Foster, who was Collins’ campaign manager at the time, said that “we don’t call our police stations ‘precincts,’ we call them ‘home.’” 

a tweet from journalist Sahra Sulaiman that reads "Why did @LASDHQ and @LACoSheriff invite Elsa Aldeguer, who recently (re)declared her allegiance w/ the Three Percenters & reposted a vile meme depicting Obama as a monkey, to speak at the press conference on the protests over the killing of #DijonKizzee? https://facebook.com/elsa.aldeguer" with screenshots from Facebook confirming her claims.
Twitter: @sahrasulaiman

Despite being lumped in among “community members,” Streetsblog reporter Sahra Sulaiman showed that Aldeguer lives miles away from the Westmont area. Aldeguer regularly attends and organizes right-wing events not just in LA, but throughout the country. During a series of Trump rallies and counter-protests in Tujunga, which Aldeguer confirmed that she organized, violent fights erupted several times after pro-Trump demonstrators crossed into counter-demonstrator areas. Members of groups like the sovereign citizen movement, IIIers, and the Proud Boys attended and were involved in violence directed at counter-demonstrators.  

a collection of far right protesters behind a police line. A blonde woman wearing sunglasses and a ball cap flips off the camera.
Pro-Trump demonstrators, including members of the Proud Boys, behind a police line in Sunland-Tujunga. (Credit: Sean Beckner-Carmitchel | Knock LA)

Aldeguer’s multiple social media accounts show a long history of anti-LGBT and anti-Black memes. She has a long history with members of SPLC-designated hate groups that include Mass Resistance California, Proud Boys, and IIIers.

Aldeguer insisted to Knock LA that she herself was not invited by Villanueva to the Westmont event, and that Villanueva doesn’t know her. Despite her long history with groups associated with violence and racism, as well as her social media posts, Aldeguer told Knock LA via social media that “I am not RACIST. [M]y family is mixed with black and Middle Eastern blood.”

Mario Presents, a vocal supporter for the reelection of the sheriff, called Villanueva “who I want to be when I grow up.” In a Spectrum SoCal story, Villanueva speaks to a crowd of what reporter Kate Cagle calls an “overwhelmingly conservative” number of supporters in Santa Clarita, which included Presents. Later that day, Presents took a photo wearing a hat saying “Shoot Your Local Pedophile,” while another man is seen wearing a hat that says “Pedophile Hunter.” Presents is a fixture at Q-Anon, anti-vaccine, and Proud Boy events throughout Southern California and often wears a “Free Commie Rides” T-shirt, which displays a stylized depiction of the extrajudicial killings by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, complete with the Proud Boys logo.

Dante Rusciolelli alleges that Presents, along with several Proud Boys, assaulted him during a Q-Anon march through Hollywood. Video shows Rusciolelli, a local comedian and talent manager, attempting to walk through the group. Rusciolelli states someone in the group then stole his hat, which reads “civil rights activist.” 

Rusciolelli’s video is unclear, but Rusciolelli alleges that Presents, “all of the sudden [hit] me with either the flag or the megaphone in the back or the ear… All I did was kind of, like, push the megaphone away. The minute I do that, he takes the flag; hits me in the nose.” In the video, Rusciolelli alleges his nose was broken. Rusciolelli told Knock LA that others began hitting and kicking him, then threw him into the street.

Independent journalist Vishal P. Singh reported that Villanueva attended an event hosted by right-wing luminary Dennis Prager in uniform. In a video posing alongside Capitol Riot attendee Siaka Massaquoi, Prager encouraged people to vote for Villanueva in the primary. Villanueva was introduced in a short video by a podcaster as “the guy we need to make sure stays in office. He’s the voice of sanity, he speaks liberal and conservative.” Prager can be seen in the background mingling with attendees.

Neither the LASD nor the Villanueva campaign responded to multiple requests for comment from Knock LA for this piece. Though Villanueva’s official positions on the CNP and violent right-wing actors were not answered, if these are the kind of people who support Villanueva, what does that say about him?