In November, Alex Villanueva, DPA ’05, surprised even his closest supporters when he became the first candidate to unseat an incumbent Los Angeles County Sheriff in a century. His victory over Sheriff Jim McDonnell was also the first time in over 130 years that a Democrat or a Latino was elected to that office.
It was a bold move for Villanueva to run. He was the quintessential underdog when, as a sheriff ‘s lieutenant, he kicked off his candidacy last June.
“Longshot doesn’t even begin to describe it,” said the 32-year law enforcement veteran. “I only had five or six supporters when I made my announcement. The odds were definitely against me.”
Today, Villanueva oversees 18,000 employees and manages a $3 billion budget. His deputies provide service to more than 3 million residents in an area stretching more than 3,000 square miles in unincorporated county communities and in 42 contract cities.
Although his name wasn’t well known in 2018, his campaign promised to “Reform, Rebuild, Restore” the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“I think people appreciated my authenticity,” he said. “I made myself available to the public.”
A key moment that crystalized the voters’ choice came during the only debate between Villanueva and McDonnell.
The incumbent surrounded himself with legal papers and two cell phones.
Villanueva kept it uncomplicated. “I only had a bottle of water,” he said. “I never rehearsed or made prepared statements. I wanted to be my genuine self. I kept my foot on the pedal the entire time.”
One of Villanueva’s first initiatives as sheriff has been to implement a merit-based civil service system recognizing staff, recruits, and sheriff department personnel for their commitment to community service.
He has also announced a new selection process for station captains.
“The plan is to open the position to hundreds of lieutenants and open the department to more inclusivity,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva will also host media availability meetings the last Wednesday of every month in different communities.
“My goal is to do a lap around the county once a year,” he said.
Villanueva plans to double the size of academy classes for incoming recruits while enforcing strict minimum educational requirements: either a two-year degree or 60 units earned from a four-year university.
University training is important to Villanueva. “With a 25-year educational journey under my belt,” he said, “I strongly believe in higher education and the pursuit of lifelong learning.”
Villanueva is one of the few L.A. County Sheriffs to hold a doctoral degree—something in which he takes great pride.
“My doctoral degree in public administration from the University of La Verne is extremely valuable and a pillar to my success,” he said.
Villanueva was introduced to the University of La Verne during the Baker to Vegas Relay, a yearly race put on by the Los Angeles Police Department. He’d toyed with the idea of going beyond his master’s in public administration, but it wasn’t until he picked up a pamphlet at the university’s booth in the Las Vegas Convention Center that a plan started to take form.
“I connected to the idea of a flexible schedule for a working adult,” he said. “I knew it was something I had to do for myself.” In 2005, he earned his Doctor of Public Administration from the College of Business and Public Management.
The first day of class, professors at La Verne posed two questions that still ring in Villanueva’s ears: “How do you know what you know? And why do we do what we do?”
For Villanueva, the answers continue to evolve. “The more we learn,” he said, “the more we can change for the better.”