Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell Concedes in Historic Upset

For the first time in more than a century, an incumbent sheriff has been ousted in Los Angeles County.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell conceded to his challenger, retired Lt. Alex Villanueva, on Monday. Villanueva, 55, will be sworn in as the 33rd sheriff on Dec. 3.

“The honor of serving as the L.A. County Sheriff is one like no other in law enforcement,” McDonnell said in a statement. “The Sheriff will be immediately faced with a range of very complex issues that go to the heart of maintaining public safety and public trust.”

Villanueva takes over a department plagued by years of scandal. McDonnell’s predecessor Lee Baca, who ran the LASD from 1998 to 2014, was convicted last year of obstructing an FBI investigation into inmate mistreatment at L.A. County jails. One of the criticisms against McDonnell is that he has not done enough to reform the department and its culture.

Villanueva comes to the job with some firsthand knowledge of the department’s challenges. He served in the LASD for three decades and says he experienced discrimination at the hands of top officials during his tenure.

In addition to voters’ historic reluctance to unseat sitting sheriffs, Villanueva was outraised by McDonnell 8 to 1 during the campaign. But an undercounted factor may have ultimately contributed to McDonnell’s loss.

“We owe a lot of this to Trump,” Javier Gonzalez, campaign strategist for pro-Villanueva Citizens PAC, told the Los Angeles Times. “Where did Democrats in L.A. County have to go to express their displeasure with Trump? All we had to do was make McDonnell a Republican and Alex a Democrat.”

Indeed, Villanueva made ICE deportations a central theme of his campaign. While it would be unfair to characterize McDonnell as a Trump supporter (the two men’s stances on immigration do not differ all that much), Villanueva made the case to voters that McDonnell had not been strong enough in pushing back on Trump’s immigration measures. As sheriff, Villanueva has vowed to kicked ICE agents out of the county’s jail system. Anti-McDonnell forces were also eager to highlight the candidates’ party affiliations. McDonnell is an independent and former Republican. Villanueva is a Democrat.

Matt Barreto, Political Science Professor at UCLA, says Latino turnout helped push Villanueva over the edge. Villanueva himself is of Puerto Rican and Polish descent. He was born in Chicago to a Latino immigrant father.

Aside from the many departmental challenges Villanueva is about to face, he may have to answer some questions about his own election campaign. As CountyNews reported last week, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is investigating possible straw donor contributions to Villanueva. The sheriff-elect says he is confident all donations made to his campaign were legal.

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