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Kevin De León and uphill battle for reelection


One year after infamous audio tape

It’s been one year since Angelenos overheard a portion of a surreptitiously recorded meeting between Councilmembers Kevin De León, then-Council President Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Ron Herrera, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

They were there to discuss the city’s redistricting process, and how to push back against a citizens’ commission proposal for redrawing the map of each of the 15 council districts. Suddenly, the conversation quickly veered into a series of racist and derogatory remarks targeting Black people, the city’s Oaxacan residents, and a number of elected officials. Much of the animus was trained on then-City Councilmember Mike Bonin and his son, who is Black.

De León is the last one standing — the other three officials lost their jobs — and is waging an uphill battle for reelection to the 14th District. A year ago, that seemed unthinkable to many. And despite weeks of protests outside his Eagle Rock home, a fight with an activist and a call by President Joe Biden to step down, De León intends to campaign for reelection.

“I do think there’s a path for him,” said Fernando Guerra, a Loyola Marymount political science professor who called for De León’s resignation last year. “I don’t think he’s the front-runner.”

De León, who has served in both houses of the state Legislature, has become somewhat of a political pariah. At no point during the conversation did De León appear to rebut or put a stop to the conversation. Instead, he took part in several of the most incendiary exchanges, including one in which Martinez accused fellow  Councilman Mike Bonin of using his Black son as an “accessory” akin to a designer handbag. 

Since then, De León has asked hundreds of people for forgiveness including elected officials, neighborhood organizers and religious leaders (i.e. the Black clergy) in an effort to claw his way from political purgatory to regain the support of his constituents and to restore his tattered reputation.

De León has said many constituents have supported him since the scandal erupted.

“They’ve had my back for many, many years,” he said. “And how could I not have theirs?” One of those loyal to De León is Adelle Gonzales who said at a Lincoln Heights food giveaway that De León is  “the only one who does this for us.”

“We are all humans, OK?” said Gonzales, as she clutched her phone with a peeling “I voted” sticker on it. “Everybody makes a mistake. Nobody is perfect. Give him another chance.”

For 18 days last year, activists camped out at De León’s home wearing T-shirts with the message “25 Black People Yelling.” That was their response to De León’s claim on the audio that the city’s Black community–despite being much smaller in numbers than the Latino population–has outsized political power.

“Twenty-five Black residents shout like their 250,” De León said. “When there’s 100 of us…it sounds like 10 of us.” De León went on to compare Black political clout to the man behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz” who projects a booming voice but is revealed to be a soft-spoken fraud.

“We decided that we were going to show him what 25 Black people yelling sounded like,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, noting that she found those remarks to be among the most troubling.

For his part, De León sponsored a resolution last month designating a downtown street intersection in honor of Willis Tyler, an early civil rights activist, for his service and advancement of racial justice. It passed on a 10-0 vote. 

Despite the noble gesture, many people have strong doubts about De León’s sincerity.

“The fact that he refused to resign when President Biden asked him to, and that he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong when the community asked him to resign, shows very little remorse,” said Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, who lives in the 14th District and is now running against him. “I think he’s trying to reinvent himself…it feels like he’s gaslighting the public by thinking we’ve all forgotten what he said in those recordings.”

De León has said some of his comments captured on the recording were “inartful.” He said he should have intervened, shutting down the meeting.

Bonin, who left office in December, has condemned De León’s attempt at a comeback. “I hope he gets crushed,” he said. Last year Bonin tearfully addressed the council while describing his anguish over what he heard on the recording — and the fact that so many of the remarks were aimed at his Black son.

Bonin said recently that De León still hasn’t “acknowledged what he did.”

“I’m certainly not the right person to pass judgment on whether he has made amends to the Black community. It’s not for me to judge. But if he has done so, he has done so silently and invisibly and without drawing any attention to himself,” Bonin said.

At City Hall, some council members are willing to sign on to his proposals, while others are not. Some have been willing to speak with him, while others are not.

Even deciding whether to be photographed with De León at large events has become a moral test for some on the council.

“Five years from now, 10 years from now, we’re going to be looking at these pictures,” said Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez, whose District One borders De León’s. “And I just don’t want people to get the wrong idea that we were OK with the damage that he did, that we were OK with him being there, because we’re not.”