LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles City Council Member Kevin de León was making a rare public appearance and giving away free turkey in his district when he had to leave quickly because protesters were coming.
They have been looking for him all over this huge city since October when a recording was leaked that showed de León and a few of his colleagues using racist language as they planned to change the political boundaries of the city to help Latinos.
De León stopped going to City Council meetings to avoid the loud protests, though he did try for a short time on Friday. He left the bungalow he bought last year for almost $1 million. When protesters heard that de León would be there, a local women’s club quickly canceled a showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They wrote an apology note and put it on the door. “Death threats have been made against the council member,” said spokesman Pete Brown. “We’re going to hire security for our tree-lighting events.”
After the recording came out in October, his life on the run has made a painful chapter last longer for Los Angeles. Just as Mayor Karen Bass takes office, the event has ruined local politics. Now, she has to deal with the fallout in a city that is already very divided and facing a lot of hard problems. No matter how hard others try to get rid of De León, he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
On Friday, de León tried to come out of hiding by going to a council meeting for the first time in 59 days. The hearing turned into shouting, and enough members left that the council had to take a break. When the meeting started again, the council member who had been in trouble was gone, and his critics were back to bashing him.
Later that night, de León got into a fight at a holiday party, and a video shows him picking up a protester and pushing him into a table. Both de León and Jason Reedy, the protester, have filed reports of battery against each other.
De León has sort of said sorry for what he said about the October recording. In a few interviews with the media, he tried to downplay and explain what he had said. And he’s tried to stay out of the public eye as much as possible in the age of social media. What he hasn’t done is step down, even though President Joe Biden and almost every Democrat in California have asked him to.
Instead, the former longtime state legislator, who won the support of the state Democratic Party to run against Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018, is trying to stay in office at least for the last two years of his term, while making about $218,000 a year. It might just work. De León is still liked by most people in his district, which includes Eagle Rock and Boyle Heights. This makes a campaign to recall him risky and expensive.
Marky Alemseged, an organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, one of the activist groups that has been following de León around town, said, “Recalls cost money, and they cost money out of our dollars, the people’s pockets.” “I don’t think it’s fair that the people should have to spend money, time, energy, and resources on a recall election. It’s not possible, and it’s not right.”
Since Oct. 11, de León has only been seen by a very small number of Angelenos. That’s when he and Council Member Gil Cedillo left a council hearing that was being surrounded by protesters. This happened soon after the recording of him, Council President Nury Martinez, Cedillo, and union leader Ron Herrera were made public.
Herrera quit right away. Martinez also quit, though at first, he didn’t want to. With only a few weeks left in his term, Cedillo left the stage quietly. But de León has given a changing defense as part of his apology tour with some local media. In this picture from April 20, 2017, then-Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon has his hands to his lips.
The council member said that he did not say the most offensive thing on the recording, which was when Martinez called the adopted Black child of a fellow council member a monkey. He did say, however, that he should have told her to stop at the time.
He tried to show that people misunderstood him when he said that Council Member Mike Bonin, who is white, brings his child to public events and shows it off like a handbag. He said he was talking about Martinez’s expensive accessories. And he said he was sorry for the racist things Martinez and Cedillo said about people from Oaxaca, a mostly rural state in Mexico.
His explanation hasn’t made his critics feel better. Claudia Oliveira, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council and an adoptee herself, said, “I find it very offensive and it makes me feel very, very bad.” “How does he know that he wasn’t being racist? It’s clear that’s racist.”
Still, it seems like his fellow council members or angry citizens can’t get rid of him quickly. Officials in Los Angeles say they don’t have the power to get rid of a sitting council member who hasn’t been charged with a crime as two have been in the past few years. And there hasn’t been a serious attempt to qualify a recall, even though the most vocal activists are pushing for him to step down. All this raises a question: Can de León stick it out?
Paul Krekorian, the new president of the council, said no to his request to be excused from meetings. His spokesperson says that De León is still helping his constituents and doesn’t plan to stop going to council meetings because of opposition. On Tuesday, he is likely to go to the next council meeting. “Ninety percent of the work we do is unique to our council office,” Brown, who works as a spokesperson for him, said. “We’re in charge of departments. This work has been going on the whole time.”
Protesters and some residents have disagreed with this description, saying that most district offices have stopped letting people walk in and get help. On a recent weekday afternoon, only de León’s Boyle Heights office was open, with people sitting at a table in front of the door to block it. No one answered the phone when it was called.
When asked about the closed offices, Brown said that the staff might have been working in the field and that the table at the Boyle Heights location serves as a check-in desk. If de León does go back to City Hall this week, council meetings could be stopped again.
Melina Abdullah, one of the people who helped start BLM-LA, said that the group had gotten promises from some council members that they would break quorum if de León came back. And ongoing protests that have sometimes led to officers blocking the entrance to council chambers would likely blow up as they did on Friday when officers had to stop an activist and a de León supporter from getting into a fight.
Several important motions, like a plan to improve downtown Los Angeles, have been put on hold because members don’t want to vote on things that de León wrote. “That is a very bad situation for not only [Council District 14], but for the whole city, because there are businesses that are frozen and can’t move forward,” said Henry Perez, the executive director of a Boyle Heights-based nonprofit called Lucha Action Fund.
Some groups in de León’s district, like the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, say they are ready to go around de León and find other council members to carry motions for the area. The last time this process was used was when José Huizar kicked off the council after being charged with bribery.
Hugh Esten, who is in charge of communications for Krekorian, said, “I don’t think anything is stopping that.” “And given the situation, it seems like the right thing to do.” There is still a chance of a serious effort to recall.
The East Area Progressive Democrats club is looking at all ways to get rid of de León, who the club calls “ineffective and irreparably damaged.” The club recently voted to allow a recall effort, and President Hans Johnson said that the club is looking at all options to get rid of de León. But, he said, activists are wary of trading de León for another product of a broken machine.
Johnson said, “This scandalous lack of representation is not happening by itself.” “We have to face the fact that this council member is part of a pattern of corruption and self-dealing that makes his or her actions even worse.”
Russell Lowery, a consultant in Sacramento, said he has talked to people who might help pay for the recall. These people include well-known Black and Latino business owners who are willing to give “several hundred thousand dollars.”
Lowery said, “A lot of people have talked about it.” “It all depends on whether the leaders want to pull the trigger or not,” Lowery said that potential backers should think about the political effects, even if the money came through. People who wanted de León to step down would be put under pressure to take sides on the recall.
“Coalitions are the key to getting anything done in LA politics,” Lowery said. “You’re not just going against Kevin de León; you’re going against everyone in that coalition.”
There’s also the question of finding someone to take over. In Los Angeles, the recall system requires that possible replacements be on the same ballot as the incumbent who is being challenged. Activists just finished the hard work of finding and promoting 2022 candidates.
“His recall is next on the planning and execution list for many progressives in LA and California,” said Ludovic Blain, who runs the progressive fundraising hub California Donor Table. However, they want a candidate “who can govern progressively on behalf of key communities in LA, including those who were hurt by that recording.”
People who don’t like De León know that the council member could fight a recall with the about $3.1 million he has saved up in a campaign account for lieutenant governor. They also know that the people who live in his district are the only ones who can get rid of him and that some of them are willing to give him a second chance.
Juan Sanjuan, who owns a restaurant and started a nonprofit called Chefs Supporting Chefs that gives away free meals, said that de León was a big help in setting up food drives when the pandemic was at its worst. Sanjuan, who has lived in the district for decades, said that this help is part of a larger investment in the Latino community that he has seen since de León took office.
“Mr. Kevin de León supports us more than anything else because we’re here for the community,” Sanjuan said. “I don’t want to talk about politics. If a politician is willing to help us and support us, that means a lot to me.” Aracelly Church, a resident of Boyle Heights, said the same thing. She said de León helped her start a nonprofit that gives mental health classes in a park that had been neglected for a long time. Perez said that de León could hurt the same neighborhoods if he stayed in office, especially if his choice led to a recall election.
Perez said, “He needs to realize that he might be making things worse for his neighborhood and the city as a whole.”
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