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New LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva fought for this political win for years

Maya Lau and Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Alex Villanueva has long known the feeling of not fitting in.

He ran from bullies as a young boy in New York, before moving to Puerto Rico where he quickly had to learn Spanish. He would walk to school along sugar cane fields there, reading books the whole way.

As a deputy in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, he was ridiculed for writing a report accusing his bosses of discriminating against Latinos.

His outspokenness in an organization built on a strict hierarchy dominated his career and outsider status, with him retiring as a lieutenant earlier this year after being repeatedly denied promotion.

He lost several bids for public office but persisted in seeking out leadership roles.

Now Villanueva, 55, is taking on the kind of executive authority he long railed against, rising six ranks to become Los Angeles County's 33rd sheriff, supported in his long-shot campaign by the rank-and-file deputies' union he once sought to dismantle.

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"My career has been killed so many times over I've been like Freddy Krueger," he said. "I keep rising from the dead. They think they got me, but I rise again."

The first-time officeholder faces a steep challenge in assuming one of the most powerful jobs in all of law enforcement. Much will be new to the former lieutenant, who went from having supervised about 100 people to running an agency with a $3 billion budget, 16,000 employees and full-time legislative advocates in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

His defeat of then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell, a veteran police leader, stunned the political establishment, prompting questions about whether Villanueva has the skill set to lead a department rattled by years of corruption scandals.

He took a bold, some say rash, step from the start, announcing in the week leading up to his swearing-in that he planned to remove 18 high-ranking department officials in a massive house cleaning. And he begins his tenure as the target of a complaint about alleged improprieties in his campaign donations.

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