LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell on Wednesday was in jeopardy of being ousted by voters as challenger Alex Villanueva took a razor-thin lead in the race to lead the sprawling, scandal-tainted law enforcement agency.
With votes still being counted, the outcome of the race is still in question. But the fact that McDonnell is fighting for his political life has stunned the Los Angeles political establishment and raised questions about future reforms at the department.
Historically, the sheriff of L.A. County could count on being easily re-elected in the primary, but Villanueva disrupted that pattern when he became one of only four challengers in the last century to push a sitting sheriff into a runoff.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Villanueva, a retired sheriff's lieutenant, was ahead by 4,927 votes, but provisional and late mail-in ballots still have to be counted.
Many political experts said it would be nearly impossible to pose a real threat to a sitting sheriff.
"I have egg on my face. I have an entire omelet on my face," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who teaches election law. For months, and even until early Wednesday morning, she predicted an upset would be very unlikely.
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"The voters sent a really clear message. They need faster and different change, and they think the Sheriff's Department needs an overhaul that hasn't happened yet. On the other hand, this was a low-information race, so I still have to wonder how much this has to do with confusion on the ballot."
She said voters are often influenced by the bare-bones information inside the voting booth: a candidates' name and title.
The agency is still seeking to redefine itself after a jail abuse scandal unfolded under former Sheriff Lee Baca, a four-term leader accused of losing focus on his department. Baca is currently appealing his conviction last year for obstructing an FBI investigation and lying to investigators.
The Sheriff's Department has faced new questions in recent months. A Los Angeles Times investigation found that a team of deputies targeted thousands of innocent Latino motorists on the 5 Freeway in drug searches, a practice now under review. There also have been concerns about why the department has not done more to curb deputies' wearing of matching tattoos that critics say are indications of secret cliques within the agency.