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Sheriff’s Runoff: Vote Villaneuva, But Don’t Fool Yourselves

It seems like only yesterday that Sheriff Jim McDonnell rode a wave of public disgust to an easy victory over Paul Tanaka…

It seems like only yesterday that Sheriff Jim McDonnell rode a wave of public disgust to an easy victory over Paul Tanaka, the now-jailed neo-Nazi gang member who served as second in command to the also-now-jailed Sheriff Lee Baca. He couldn’t help but improve on their performance — the transparent corruption and violence of the Baca era made that unavoidable — but the four years since that victory have shown him to be out of step with the needs of his constituents, and an active foe of criminal justice reform.

California’s previously draconian sentencing laws like “three strikes,” and the massive prison system that resulted, have long been out of line with the sentiments of California voters, and in the last decade we’ve taken real steps to reverse some of those cruelties. Sheriff McDonnell, of course, joins the side of the reactionaries, scaremongering about felons running free in the streets and promising new doom whenever the voters try to undo a fraction of the harm our system has caused. A sheriff who can’t imagine safe streets without full prisons lacks the vision to lead in a 21st-century L.A.

Sheriff McDonnell has also made himself a barrier to the protection of our immigrant community from the Trump administration. The supposedly-former-Republican opposes any Sanctuary City/State laws and lobbied mightily to water down the protections provided by SB54, and lied about allowing ICE to set up computers in the county jail.

And despite his efforts at internal reform, McDonnell’s LASD has seen its share of scandal and brutality, including massive racial profiling of Latinx drivers and yet another possible gang in the ranks — the LA Times had a full paragraph of scandals in their own endorsement of McDonnell, which, okay, bit of a mixed message there.

His opponent Alex Villanueva is saying some of the right things — he wants less cooperation with ICE, questioned the need for a multi-billion-dollar expansion of the county jail, and wants the mentally ill to be in treatment rather than in custody. This is a promising start and it’s clear that, if nothing else, Villanueva will be more responsive to the tide of reform and to Democratic elected officials than the incumbent. Villanueva absolutely should have your vote, and we at KNOCK hope that he wins an unprecedented victory in November.

That said: Don’t fool yourselves, guys.

I’ve seen an outpouring of progressive support for Villanueva that seems… disproportionate, let’s say. Though a clear improvement over the incumbent, Villanueva is no Larry Krasner — he’s not campaigning on some sort of existential transformation of the Department. He’s a cop. He’s going to run a department full of cops. And there are questions as to how far he will go to fulfill his rhetoric — his plans to reduce collaboration with ICE are sketchy at best, with his primary concrete proposal being to turn felons over to ICE by transporting them outside of the jail for handoff.

Villanueva’s approach to departmental corruption also might be no better than McDonnell’s. He walked himself into one of the only “gotcha” moments of their debate when he couldn’t decide whether to defend the honor of deputies with clique tattoos or to attack McDonnell for appointing them to leadership positions. Villanueva has also, disturbingly, criticized one of McDonnell’s best policies, the creation of a list of 300 “problem” deputies, as a desperation move, and has earned the unexpected endorsement of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs — the very police union suing to stop that list from being released.

McDonnell is more than disqualified by his opposition to sanctuary policies and prison reform. A victory by Villanueva would also be a much deserved shock to the system — unseating an incumbent sheriff for the first time in a century would be a powerful demonstration of democratic power, reasserting civilian control of the police.

But it will not bring transformative change. It will not usher in a new era of accountability or upend the carceral state. The true victories will, as always, be clawed from the grasp of the powerful by the work of communities and activists. The ultimate and necessary goal is a world where people are no longer caged, not simply better management for the cages.