Once seen as a trailblazer, Kevin de León tumbles after leaked racist tape



Nearly 20 minutes into the secretly recorded conversation that would cost Nury Martinez her L.A. City Council seat, she remarked to fellow Councilmember Kevin de León that it was recently his anniversary. Seven years before, he had been sworn in as the leader of the California Senate.

The ceremony at Walt Disney Concert Hall was a career landmark, celebrating the first time in more than a century that a Latino led the state’s upper chamber. It ushered in four years when De León was one of California’s most powerful politicians. But instead of nostalgia, De León spoke of the memory as a deep wound.

“That swearing-in ceremony, I got s— on all over for that,” De León said, recounting how his event was portrayed by the media as unnecessarily lavish while a white politician’s gala in the same venue got no negative coverage. His theory why? “Because we as Latinos — whether you’re labor or you’re in the political space — we’re not supposed to fill those positions.”

The anecdote has received little attention amid the furious reaction to the leaked audio of the conversation, rife with racism, homophobia and general divisiveness, that has left City Hall in shambles. But De León’s recollection of his swearing-in, much like other comments woven into the hour-plus recording, offers a window into his political ambition, personal grievance and decades-long project of solidifying Latino power. In short, it captures the mind-set of a onetime Democratic rising star whose career now risks near-total collapse.

In the days after The Times reported on the discussion among three City Council members and a labor power broker, Martinez and Ron Herrera, the leader of the Los Angeles Labor Federation, have resigned. There remains pressure for the others — De León and Gil Cedillo — to do the same. The stakes are especially high for De León, who has two years left in his City Council term; Cedillo is set to leave office in two months.

The chorus of calls for De León’s resignation include his City Council colleagues, Mayor Eric Garcetti, President Biden and some of his oldest friends. His allies, many of whom requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, expressed deep disappointment that De León did not stop the racist discourse and that he described Councilmember Mike Bonin, a political foe, as using his adopted Black son as a prop akin to a designer handbag. But they point out that his comments were not nearly as offensive as Martinez’s myriad slurs.

“Kevin is not a racist,” said Fabian Núñez, the former Assembly speaker who has been close to De León since their teenage years. “What he said on that occasion is inappropriate. What he didn’t say is also inappropriate. But no way, no how is he a racist.”

The recording revealed that De León’s perspective was heavily defined by race and class. He expressed deep distrust that Black and white colleagues would treat Latino politicians fairly. The biggest threat to Latinos was not “those crazies in Orange County who are pro-Trump,” he said. “It’s the white liberals. It’s the L.A. Times.”

De León, 55, declined an interview request. He has not made a public statement since he expressed regret after the story broke on Sunday.

His allies and detractors alike say his heightened awareness about social status stems from his upbringing. He was born in Los Angeles and raised in impoverished conditions in San Diego’s Logan Heights by a single mother, a Guatemalan immigrant who cleaned houses to support him. His father, also from Guatemala and of Chinese descent, was not in the picture.

De León’s background is fundamental to his political trajectory; he speaks about it often to demonstrate his commonality with the neighborhoods he represents, such as Boyle Heights and El Sereno. It also left him with a chip on his shoulder, a sense of being judged as he rose through the ranks and a desire to fit in with whichever crowd he was with, said people who know him well.

He began his political career as an immigrant rights activist, organizing opposition to Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure to block public services to people who were in the country illegally. That cause remained a focus during his 12 years in the state Legislature, especially when he carried a 2017 law to designate California as a “sanctuary state.”

De León took big swings to pass an array of progressive priorities — and often succeeded. He successfully sponsored bills that increased the state’s use of renewable energy and established state-run retirement savings accounts, and he passed a single-payer healthcare bill off the Senate floor. He parlayed his growing profile to a speaking slot at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

His ambition alienated many in the Capitol, and his detractors wondered whether his agenda was driven by conviction or calculation. The critique arose again this week after he was recorded speaking about how the state Senate handled sexual misconduct allegations against Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza. Publicly, De León had pushed for Mendoza’s resignation. On the audio, however, he disparaged white liberals in his caucus for being too quick to cut Mendoza loose, describing the offense as “not really a legal issue … just a harassment issue.”

His comments dismayed Jennifer Kwart, the then-legislative staffer whose complaint against Mendoza was substantiated by a state Senate investigation.

“Of course that speaks to his credibility,” Kwart said. “You don’t know if what he’s saying in public is how he actually feels.”

De León challenged Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018, running to her left. Vastly underfunded, he lost by 9 points, a more respectable showing than many anticipated. He ran for Los Angeles City Council in 2020, with his eye on the next mayoral race. He saw a path drawing on support from Latinos and progressives.

But some in Los Angeles, especially those engaged in activism for homeless people, were deeply skeptical of De León’s progressive bona fides.

“He talks likes a progressive, walks like a liberal — at best,” said Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. “When you look at his track record, you might look at the overt anti-Black racism and say this is an aberration. But this is one big-ass aberration. Your leadership has to be solid throughout.”

The skepticism turned into open hostility by the start of this year, when activists clashed with De León’s efforts to reduce the number of encampments by moving homeless people into temporary housing or other forms of shelter.

On the recording, his antipathy shines through, mocking the protesters at homeless encampments as Tesla drivers from Silver Lake.

The leak also gave a glimpse into De León’s motivation in the meeting, which was about redistricting: the effort to consolidate “Latino strength for the foreseeable future.” At the heart of the matter is the fact that Latinos make up more than half of the city’s population, yet occupy only four of the 15 council seats.

The discussion had the tenor of a zero-sum exercise pitting them against other groups, particularly Black members who represent areas that are now largely Latino. De León compared the significant influence African Americans held in redistricting to the Wizard of Oz, an exaggeration of their actual presence in the city. The comments prompted an outcry as demeaning to Black political power.

The meeting displayed an “overly elementary” expression of power politics, said former Assembly Speaker John Pérez, who said it would be completely legitimate to try to increase Latino representation and “make sure redistricting makes up for historical wrongs in the way the community has been divided.”

“That’s different from ‘screw this group, screw that group, we have to flex our muscle,’” said Pérez, a Democrat who now serves as a University of California regent.

De León’s allies note that he has repeatedly backed Black politicians over Latinos. But the recording also showed that De León held grudges when the favor wasn’t returned. He vented about Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, whom De León endorsed in a tough 2020 reelection bid, for siding with Karen Bass over him in the mayoral race.

Jones-Sawyer said he was surprised by the comments he heard on the tape and noted that De León never asked for his endorsement.

“I thought we had a friendship,” Jones-Sawyer said. “If it means me supporting Karen — going with my gut on who I think is best for mayor — results in him not feeling we’re friends anymore, all I can do is what I think is best.”

Núñez, who has called on his friend to resign, said De León and the others “forgot who they were” in that closed-door meeting.

“They’re in charge,” Núñez said. “I think they were thinking like activists and not like leaders. This is where it’s harder for people to forgive them.”

Forgiveness is not likely to come anytime soon; calls for De León’s resignation continue and protesters have said they will keep disrupting council proceedings until De León and Cedillo are gone. Though Martinez may have made the most egregious comments, De León has not banked enough goodwill to weather the outcry, said White, of LACAN, the community advocacy group. He compared De León to an accomplice to a crime.

“If you were there — and you didn’t pull the trigger and you didn’t say hand over the bag but you were there — you are guilty,” White said. “The same applies here.”

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