Robert Luna showed up 2½ hours early for his debate with Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the Skirball Center. The challenger showed up so early that the guard didn’t have the VIP parking list yet. The technicians in the room were still doing audio checks.
Luna walked to his green room—a closet compared to Villanueva’s spacious suite two doors down. His footsteps echoed through the emptiness of the Skirball’s courtyard. Then I saw Luna’s shoes.
They were brown, with thick white soles, and looked like unbranded Top-Siders. Middle-aged Latino men have favored these men for the past ten years if they want to upgrade their looks but don’t have the money or the hipster feel to buy something more luxurious.
“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’ve done something wrong.”
He looked at his wife, who was wearing a “Luna for Sheriff” campaign button.
‘Where did I get them – Marshalls? Macy’s? I can’t even remember,” he said.
An hour before the debate, Villanueva finally showed up, walking through the side entrance of the Skirball, accompanied by a security detail that seemed to continue to grow.
He only came out of his green room to get his makeup done. Just before that, the sheriff brought in a brownie. His shoes were standard loafers that were as black as the shoes police officers wear.
He and Luna both wore blue ties. That was one of the few matches of the evening.
The two faced each other for the first time after a bad summer for Villanueva. Luna had forced him to a runoff as Villanueva got the lowest percentage in an incumbent LA County sheriff’s primary in at least a century.
He had just been released a month in which his department lost a $31 million lawsuit over the inappropriate release of pictures of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others.
And Villanueva received national conviction last week for a morning raid on the home of Sheila Kuehl, an LA County supervisor and its 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 would set up a double trap to embarrass Luna.
Hours before going head-to-head, Villanueva’s camp gave the news media a 34-page document titled “A Record of Racial Violence and Harassment” that compiled police reports, lawsuits, and more from Luna’s decades-long career, and alleged the Long Beach Police Department. to prove. The department’s “disturbing anti-black history”.
What he didn’t tell the media was that he would also offer a discourse on how he’s more Latino than Luna.
Strategically, it seemed like a brilliant move. This year, Villanueva has been plagued by accusations from activists and members of his own branch that he has an enmity towards 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 will be able to bolster his support with two voting blocs essential to his reelection.
The debate was sharp and heated. Major topics were discussed – homelessness, aid gangs, public corruption – but were then brushed aside in favor of personal attacks. Villanueva called Luna a “puppet” and accused him of using buzzwords. Luna called his opponent’s tendency to lie “scary” several times and kept his cool despite constant urging from Villanueva.
When Villanueva finally revealed his bipartisan ethnic strategy, he failed. Bad.
He continued to attack Luna while not responding to questions from the moderators. His anti-black accusations made no sense.
When Villanueva tried to attack Luna’s Latino credentials, he exposed himself as a petty pendejo.
At one point, a Univision anchor asked a question about a viewer’s public safety. Villanueva answered in technically perfect Spanish.
But his accent sounded like a white man learning it espanol from a fancy school, not from the street.
When Luna was asked to translate what Villanueva said, she declined, pointing out that his Spanish may not be the best. But then what? He’s like millions of Latinos.
His wife Vivian was involved in Villanueva’s biggest swing. At one point, he rattled out the names of all the East Los Angeles schools she attended, from elementary school to Cal State LA.
“That really means born and raised in East LA,” the sheriff said, pointing at Luna. “You want to talk about integrity — you may want to clarify where you grew up and what schools you went to.”
When a moderator asked if Luna had integrity, Villanueva replied, “He needs to clarify where he grew up.”
The Implication: Luna tried to embellish his Eastlos credentials to try and make himself more Latino than he actually was.
Luna stumbled for a moment, then admitted his sin. Yes, he started in East LA. But after his parents had some money, they bought a house in Santa Fe Springs, and he attended middle and high school there.
Santa Fe Springs, by the way, is where Villanueva’s campaign headquarters is.
What a burn.
TBEN 11 co-moderator Elex Michaelson asked what the point of Villanueva’s appeal was.
“Because he claimed he saw cops in East LA and that he knew a good cop from a bad cop,” Villanueva replied. “And I really doubted when you were so young. You can understand the difference between the two.”
Luna responded by citing one of the most infamous incidents in the history of the LA County Sheriff’s Department: the Chicano Moratorium in 1970, when deputies brutalized peaceful anti-Vietnam war protesters and killed Times columnist Ruben Salazar with a tear gas canister to the head.
“If you see cops using force on people with batons, I don’t know about you in the crowd, I’ve never forgotten that,” he replied. “So again, we’ve got the LA County Sheriff who’s supposed to be talking about shootings, natural disasters, and all these critical incidents — and he’s making up information here for all of you.”
Not only was Luna not upset by Villanueva’s attack, but he returned to his teenage years in Santa Fe Springs when asked if the sheriff should use alternative strategies in addition to violence in stopping Latinos on bicycles — a scandal among Villanueva.
“I’m talking to you like a person who, as a 13-year-old, rode a bicycle and got his face thrown into the hood of a sheriff’s car when I was in high 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 right.”
Villanueva had no answer.
At the end, the moderators attempted to ask a few light-hearted quick questions that exposed more of each candidate’s Latino credentials.
Favorite TV shows? Both replied “Big Bang Theory”, which surprised them so much that they gave each other a high-five. Who said Latinos can’t be nerds?
Favorite band? Luna replied with ranchera icon Vicente Fernández. Villanueva’s response was Maná, Mexico’s ersatz U2.
Favorite sports team? Villanueva went with the Dodgers. Luna said Dodgers and lakers.
IQuien es mas Latino? Only Villanueva cares. His moves were salsa so slack that Pace Picante Sauce looked as fiery as Tapatío.