Robert Luna showed up to his debate with Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the Skirball Center 2½ hours early. The challenger showed up so early that the security guard didn’t have the VIP parking list yet. The tech people in the auditorium were still doing audio checks.
Luna walked to his green room — a closet compared with Villanueva’s spacious suite two doors down. His footsteps echoed through the emptiness of the Skirball’s courtyard. That’s when I noticed Luna’s shoes.
They were brown, with thick white soles, and looked like off-brand Top-Siders. Middle-aged, middle-class Latino men over the last decade have favored these when they want to class up their look but don’t have the money or hipster fashion sense to buy something fancier.
“I grew up poor,” the retired Long Beach police chief explained. “If I ever spend more than $100 on something, I immediately feel like I did something wrong.”
He looked to his wife, who wore a “Luna for Sheriff” campaign button.
“Where did I get them — Marshalls? Macy’s? I can’t even remember,” he said.
Villanueva finally showed up an hour before the debate, sweeping through the Skirball’s side entrance accompanied by a security detail that seemed to keep growing.
He only emerged from his green room to get his makeup done. Right before that, the sheriff scarfed down a brownie. His shoes were standard-issue loafers as black as the shoes police officers wear.
He and Luna both sported blue ties. That was one of the few commonalities of the evening.
The two were facing off for the first time after a bad summer for Villanueva. Luna had forced him into a runoff as Villanueva received the lowest percentage in a primary election for an incumbent L.A. County sheriff in at least a century.
He had just come off a month in which his department lost a $31-million lawsuit over the improper release of photos of the helicopter crash scene where Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others perished.
And Villanueva received national condemnation last week for a morning raid on the house of Sheila Kuehl, an L.A. County supervisor and his frequent critic. He characterized it as an investigation into public corruption, but many others saw it as a thinly veiled witch hunt.
The sheriff had a plan for the debate: He was going to set a double trap to embarrass Luna.
Hours before they faced off, Villanueva’s camp released to the news media a 34-page docket titled “A Record of Racial Violence and Harassment” that gathered police reports, lawsuits and more from Luna’s decades-long career, claiming to prove the Long Beach Police Department’s “disturbing anti-Black history.”
What he didn’t tell the media was that he was also going to offer a treatise on how he is more Latino than Luna.
Strategically, it seemed a brilliant move. This year has seen Villanueva plagued by accusations by activists and members of his own department that he has an animus toward Black people. Polls show that Black voters support Villanueva the least, while Latinos support him the most. If he can portray Luna as anti-Black and a whitewashed Latino, he’ll be able to shore up his support with two voting blocs essential to his reelection.
The debate was sharp and heated. Big topics were discussed — homelessness, deputy gangs, public corruption — but then cast aside in favor of personal attacks. Villanueva called Luna a “puppet” and accused him of using buzzwords. Luna called his opponent’s propensity to lie “scary” multiple times and kept his cool, despite constant goading by Villanueva.
When Villanueva finally unveiled his two-pronged ethnic strategy, he failed. Badly.
He kept attacking Luna while not responding to questions by the moderators. His anti-Black allegations went nowhere.
When Villanueva tried to attack Luna’s Latino credentials, he exposed himself as a petty stupid.
At one point, a Univison anchor posed a public safety question from a viewer. Villanueva answered in technically perfect Spanish.
But his accent sounded like that of a white guy who learned español from a fancy school, not the streets.
Luna, when asked to translate what Villanueva said, declined, hinting that his Spanish maybe wasn’t the best. But so what? He’s just like millions of Latinos.
Villanueva’s biggest swing involved his wife, Vivian. At one point, he rattled off the names of all the schools in East Los Angeles she attended, from elementary through Cal State L.A.
“That’s what’s called born and raised in East L.A. really means,” the sheriff said, gesturing at Luna. “You want to talk about integrity — you might want to clarify where you were raised and what schools you went to.”
When a moderator asked whether Luna had integrity, Villanueva responded, “He needs to clarify where he was raised.”
The implication: Luna was trying to embellish his Eastlos credentials to try to make himself more Latino than he really was.
Luna stumbled for a bit, then admitted his sin. Yes, he started out in East L.A. But after his parents got some money, they bought a home in Santa Fe Springs, and he went to middle and high school there.
Santa Fe Springs, by the way, is where Villanueva’s campaign headquarters are.
What a burn.
Co-moderator Elex Michaelson of Fox 11 asked what was the point of Villanueva’s roll call.
“Because he claimed that in East L.A., he saw deputies at work, and he knew a good cop from a bad cop,” Villanueva replied. “And I really had doubt when you’re that young, you can understand the difference of the two.”
Luna responded by name-checking one of the most notorious incidents in the history of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department: the 1970 Chicano Moratorium, when deputies brutalized peaceful anti-Vietnam War protesters and killed Times columnist Ruben Salazar with a tear gas canister to the head.
“When you see deputies using force on people with batons, I don’t know about any of you in the crowd, I never forgot that,” he replied. “So again, we have the sheriff of L.A. County, who’s supposed to talk about deputy-involved shootings, natural disasters and all these critical incidences — and he’s making up information right here in front of all of you.”
Not only was Luna not rattled by Villanueva’s attack, but he returned to his Santa Fe Springs teenage years when asked whether the Sheriff’s Department should use alternative strategies, besides violence, when stopping Latinos on bicycles — a scandal under Villanueva.
“I’m talking to you as a person who, as a 13-year-old, was riding a bicycle and got tossed face first into the hood of a sheriff’s car when I was in middle school in Santa Fe Springs, when the sheriffs had that contract there,” he said. “I’ve seen it from the other side. It doesn’t feel good.”
Villanueva had no answer.
At the end, the moderators tried to do some lighthearted quick questions that exposed more of each candidate’s Latino credentials.
Favorite TV shows? Both answered “Big Bang Theory,” which surprised them to the point they high-fived each other. Who said Latinos can’t be nerds?
Favorite band? Luna answered with ranchera icon Vicente Fernández. Villanueva’s response was Maná, the ersatz U2 of Mexico.
Favorite sports team? Villanueva went with the Dodgers. Luna said Dodgers and Lakers.
¿Who is more Latino?? Only Villanueva cares. His flexes were so weak salsa that they made Pace Picante Sauce seem as fiery as Tapatío.