The deputies wore tactical gear as they descended on the white colonial in Santa Monica, Calif. Search warrant in hand, they pounded on the door. A helicopter thrummed above.
The house belonged to Sheila Kuehl, 81, a former actress and attorney and a powerful longtime politician who emerged barefoot and agitated. Soon her computers and files — even photographs from her time starring on the sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” — were carted away.
According to the warrant, it was part of an investigation into a nonprofit run by Ms. Kuehl’s friend Patricia Giggans, whose home was also raided. But for many, the dramatic events in September represented a new level of retaliation ordered up by a confrontational leader: Alex Villanueva.
Recoiling from efforts to regulate his power, he has battled with public officials and antagonized his critics. Among them are Ms. Kuehl, who serves on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — the governing body that oversees the sheriff’s department budget — and Ms. Giggans, who sits on the county’s civilian oversight commission. Both have called for the sheriff’s resignation.
Unlike police chiefs who are appointed, sheriffs in most states answer directly to voters, giving them largely unchecked powers over an array of law enforcement matters, from issuing gun permits to running the jails. Few have pushed the bounds of their authority like Sheriff Villanueva.
In his first term running the largest sheriff’s department in the nation, he has been accused of opening criminal investigations into his detractors, covering up inmate abuse and deputy misconduct, unlawfully reinstating a friend fired for alleged domestic abuse and bullying a county executive, which led to a $1.5-million settlement.
He has done all of it with an air of braggadocio, gaining a new following while infuriating the Democratic political establishment that runs Los Angeles. Despite being a Democrat, he has expressed his disdain for “the woke left,” scoffed at the notion of tension between the police and the Black community, and denounced county vaccine mandates for his employees.
His actions have prompted the county supervisors to place an extraordinary measure on the ballot allowing them to oust him — if he survives the election on Tuesday against a former police chief, Robert Luna, who has been endorsed by prominent Democrats and labor unions.
Should Sheriff Villanueva win, he has no plans to curb his public clashes with local leaders.
“I will call them out for doing something wrong,” he said in an interview at his campaign office. “I’ve never hesitated on that. And I won’t now.”
A Frustrated Deputy
The first time Mr. Villanueva announced he was running for sheriff, he was just seven years into his career. It was 1993, and he was assigned to the East Los Angeles station, a place where deputies tended to be hardened by the travails of facing off against the Maravilla gangs. There was also a reputed culture of deputies forming their own gangs within the station itself.
The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.
- Biden’s Speech: In a prime-time address, President Biden denounced Republicans who deny the legitimacy of elections, warning that the country’s democratic traditions are on the line.
- State Supreme Court Races: The traditionally overlooked contests have emerged this year as crucial battlefields in the struggle over the course of American democracy.
- Democrats’ Mounting Anxiety: Top Democratic officials are openly second-guessing their party’s pitch and tactics, saying Democrats have failed to unite around one central message.
- Social Security and Medicare: Republicans, eyeing a midterms victory, are floating changes to the safety net programs. Democrats have seized on the proposals to galvanize voters.
Mr. Villanueva was considered an oddity. “Alex was more of an intellectual bookworm who undoubtedly had a hard time fitting in,” said Matt Rodriguez, a former captain who was once close friends with him and was among more than two dozen people interviewed by The Times for this story. “He can’t get out of his own way, because he believes he knows more than anybody else.”
The idea of Mr. Villanueva leading the department was absurd to many — at one point, he was put on bike patrol, taking to the streets in a white polo shirt with green shorts — and he eventually faded from the race.
But Mr. Villanueva said he was well received and respected as a deputy. “I didn’t fit the normal mold, I didn’t try to blend in,” he said.
Mr. Villanueva often complained that he did not get promoted and said it was because of racial discrimination. He wrote letters to newspapers, penning several to The Los Angeles Times.
“In law enforcement in particular, the ‘good ol’ boy’ network routinely promotes less-qualified male whites over more-qualified minorities, the untold twist of affirmative action,” he wrote in 2002.
The son of a second-generation Polish American mother and Puerto Rican father, Sheriff Villanueva said that he has experienced being an outsider ever since he was 9, when his family moved from New York to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. He had to quickly learn Spanish, while his blue eyes led to calls of “gringo.” His father ran a print shop, and the family was poor enough that he felt like a second-class citizen at his Catholic school, he said.
Commander John Satterfield, who is now the sheriff’s chief of staff, said he and Mr. Villanueva used to sit and talk over lunches brought from home back when they were sergeants at the training academy. Neither was the type to get beers after work.
“Even back then, he had said, ‘There’s one position they can’t keep me out of and that’s sheriff, so maybe one of these days, I’ll run,’” Commander Satterfield said.
Mr. Villanueva was promoted to lieutenant after settling a lawsuit with the department in which he said he had been passed over for promotions because he was Hispanic.
In 2017, Mr. Villanueva announced his plan to try for the top position once more.
Democrats rallied around his promises of transparency and criminal justice reform, and he pulled off a stunning victory, beating an incumbent and jumping six ranks overnight. He characterized his win as the triumph of an insider willing to “speak truth to power.”
Questions From Day 1
On Dec. 3, 2018, Sheriff Villanueva was in a black Suburban, on his way to his swearing-in ceremony, his wife, son and granddaughter by his side. Also in the car was Caren Carl Mandoyan, a deputy fired under the former sheriff and with whom Mr. Villanueva had recently grown close.
The route included a planned stop: the East Los Angeles station, the same place he had launched his campaign the year before with little fanfare. When he got out of the car this time, deputies greeted him eagerly, asking for photos. Many were later seen at the ceremony sitting in a reserved section up front.
“He reminds me of the kid who was always picked last for the baseball team growing up,” said Bob Olmsted, a former top administrator who worked for Mr. Villanueva. “Now he’s the sheriff, and he owns the ballpark, the bat and glove, everything. And he gets to pick who he wants on his team.”
Mr. Olmsted had been among those hired to replace more than a dozen fired administrators who had worked for the sheriff’s predecessor, Jim McDonnell. Optimistic about Sheriff Villanueva, Mr. Olmsted soon saw him as vindictive and impressionable and left after a year.
He recalled how he and Ray Leyva, who had taken on the role of undersheriff before being fired, showed up for their first official meeting at the sheriff’s home in La Habra. To their surprise, the agenda included executive promotions for people whom they believed were considerably underqualified. “He said, ‘I owe it to them because they helped me get elected,’” Mr. Olmsted said. “Ray and I looked at each other and go, ‘This is ludicrous.’ And that was Day 1.”
In an email, the sheriff’s campaign director, Javier González, defended personnel decisions, saying that Mr. Villanueva “had a limited batch he could trust.”
Sheriff Villanueva would soon develop a reputation for instigating questionable criminal inquiries into public officials that never would result in charges, a pattern that the chair of the civilian oversight commission said suggested ulterior motives. He was also accused of basing decisions on personal loyalty.
It was the sheriff’s promises to his friend and former deputy Mr. Mandoyan that widely signaled a leader who did not want to be reined in. Mr. Mandoyan had been fired after being investigated for domestic abuse, but the sheriff reinstated him with $200,000 in back pay and told The New York Times last month it was “a horrendous, wrongful termination.” Courts disagreed and allowed the county to remove Mr. Mandoyan, including a state court of appeals that found that the sheriff had acted unlawfully.
“Carl Mandoyan was Villanueva’s shot across the bow,” said Carol Lin, a department administrator before the firings. “It was a signal to the rank-and-file that ‘I’m going to stand up to the powers that be.’”
The sheriff has defended his investigations as legitimate probes into potential criminal activity, and he and his supporters say he has been a principled and fair leader who cleaned up the department. They pointed out that his investigation into corrupt deputies led to dismissals. Among his other accomplishments, the sheriff said, were implementing body-worn cameras and diversifying the work force.
He also frequently says that he made good on a promise to prevent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials from accessing the jails, though critics say he did so only under pressure from county supervisors and watchdog organizations.
His work often has been overshadowed by his hostility. He responded to criticism from Max Huntsman, the watchdog for the Sheriff’s Department, by opening criminal investigations into him, calling him a Holocaust denier and ultimately banning his access to the department’s facilities, personnel and databases.
“I resist unethical, weaponized oversight, which is what they’re doing,” the sheriff said. Mr. Huntsman has not been charged with any crimes.
In the spring, Mr. Villanueva drew national attention when he held a news conference to announce an investigation into a Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote about a department cover-up involving a deputy who knelt on an inmate’s head. Deputies allege in lawsuits that the sheriff helped hide the incident and retaliated against the whistle-blowers. Mr. Villanueva called the lawsuits frivolous.
“How he ran, and what he ended up being — it’s so, so different,” said Eli Vera, who had been a top adviser to the sheriff but was demoted after he decided to try to unseat his boss in this year’s election.
Shortly before resigning in March, a lawyer for the county sent an 84-page document to the California attorney general, Rob Bonta, requesting that he intervene in Sheriff Villanueva’s “intimidating, politically motivated investigations.”
Initially, the attorney general said only that he would review the matter. But in September, Mr. Bonta announced he would take control of the inquiry into Ms. Kuehl, the county supervisor who has publicly dueled with the sheriff, saying the “unprecedented investigation” had raised serious questions for residents.
It was just days after the raid on Ms. Kuehl’s home, and the move appeared to be a sign that a higher authority was taking charge — one who could restrain Sheriff Villanueva’s power.
The sheriff, who said the Kuehl raid was not personal, responded with a different take, posting a letter on social media thanking the attorney general for looking into the city’s corruption.
Then, just last week, Sheriff Villanueva held a news conference in which he questioned Mr. Bonta’s objectivity and whether he was obstructing justice.
He declared a plan to request that the attorney general’s investigation now be monitored by the U.S. attorney’s office.
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.