Robert Luna showed up for 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. Auditorium technicians were still performing audio checks.
Luna made her way to her green bedroom – one closet to Villanueva’s spacious suite two doors down. His footsteps echoed in the void of the Skirball court. That’s when I noticed Luna’s shoes.
They were brown, with thick white soles, and looked like off-brand Top-Siders. Over the past decade, middle-class, middle-aged Latino men have favored them when they want to upgrade their look but don’t have the money or the hipster fashion sense to buy something fancier .
“I grew up in poverty,” said the retired Long Beach police chief. “If I ever spend more than $100 on something, I immediately feel like I did something wrong.”
He looked at his wife, who was wearing a “Luna for Sheriff” campaign button.
“Where did I find them – Marshalls? at Macy’s? I don’t even remember it,” he said.
Villanueva finally showed up an hour before the debate, sweeping the Skirball’s side entrance accompanied by a security detail that seemed to keep growing.
He only left his green room to have his makeup done. Right before that, the sheriff devoured a brownie. His shoes were standard loafers as black as the shoes worn by police officers.
He and Luna both wore blue ties. It was one of the few common points of the evening.
The two were meeting for the first time after a bad summer for Villanueva. Luna had forced him to a runoff as Villanueva had received the lowest percentage in a primary election for an incumbent LA County sheriff in at least a century.
He had just come out of a month in which his department lost a $31 million lawsuit over the improper release of photos from the scene of the helicopter crash where Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others perished. .
And Villanueva received national condemnation last week for an early morning raid on the home of Sheila Kuehl, an LA County supervisor and frequent critic. He called it 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 side released a 34-page dossier to the media titled “A Dossier of Racial Violence and Harassment” which compiled police reports, lawsuits and more on the Luna’s long career, claiming to prove the Long Beach police department’s “troublesome anti-Black history.”
What he didn’t tell the media was that he was also going to come up with a treatise 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 department that he harbors animosity toward black people. Polls show black voters support Villanueva the least, while Latinos support him the most. If he can paint Luna as anti-Black and a whitewashed Latino, he will be able to consolidate his support with two voting blocks essential to his re-election.
The debate was lively and heated. Big topics were broached – homelessness, gangs of MPs, public corruption – but then brushed aside in favor of personal attacks. Villanueva called Luna a “puppet” and accused him of using buzzwords. Luna called her opponent’s propensity to lie “frightening” on several occasions and kept her cool, despite Villanueva’s constant prodding.
When Villanueva finally unveiled his two-pronged ethnic strategy, he failed. Wrong.
He continued to attack Luna without answering questions from the moderators. His anti-black allegations went nowhere.
When Villanueva tried to attack Luna’s Latino credentials, he exposed himself as a little pendant.
At one point, a Univison presenter asked a viewer a public safety question. Villanueva responded in technically perfect Spanish.
But his accent sounded like a white guy who learned Spanish from a fancy school, not from the streets.
Luna, when asked to translate what Villanueva said, refused, hinting that her Spanish might not be the best. But then what? He’s like millions of Latinos.
Villanueva’s biggest swing involved his wife, Vivian. At one point he rattled off the names of every East Los Angeles school she attended, from elementary to Cal State LA
“That’s what born and raised in East LA really means,” the sheriff said, pointing to 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 if Luna had integrity, Villanueva replied, “He needs to clarify where he was raised.”
The implication: Luna was trying to embellish his Eastlos credentials to try to make himself look more Latino than he really was.
Luna stumbled a bit, then admitted her sin. Yeah, he started in East LA. But after his parents had some money, they bought a house in Santa Fe Springs, and he went to middle school and high school there.
By the way, Santa Fe Springs is where Villanueva’s campaign headquarters is.
What a burn.
Fox 11 co-moderator Elex Michaelson asked what the purpose of Villanueva’s roll call was.
“Because he claimed that in East LA he saw deputies at work and he knew a good cop from a bad cop,” Villanueva replied. “And I really doubted when you’re so young, you can understand the difference of the two.”
Luna responded by verifying the name of one of the most notorious incidents in the history of the LA 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 anything about you in the crowd, I’ve never forgotten that,” he replied. “Again, we have the LA County Sheriff, who is supposed to be talking about the deputy shootings, the natural disasters and all these critical incidents – and he is making up information here in front of you all.”
Not only was Luna unfazed by Villanueva’s attack, he flashed back to his teenage years in Santa Fe Springs when asked if the sheriff’s department should use alternative strategies, in addition to violence, to stop Latinos on bicycles – a scandal under Villanueva.
“I’m speaking to you as someone who, as a 13-year-old, rode a bike and got thrown headfirst 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 saw it on the other side.
Villanueva had no answer.
At the end, the moderators tried to ask a few quick, light-hearted questions that further exposed each contestant’s Latino credentials.
Favorite TV shows? The two replied “Big Bang Theory”, which surprised them to the point that they clapped their hands. Who said Latinos can’t be nerds?
Preferred group? Luna responded with ranchera icon Vicente Fernández. Villanueva’s answer was Maná, Mexico’s ersatz U2.
Your favorite sports team? Villanueva went with the Dodgers. Luna said Dodgers and Lakers.
¿Quien es más Latino? Only Villanueva cares. His sags were so weak in salsa that they made Pace Picante Sauce as fiery as Tapatío.