How Do You Solve a Problem Like Kevin De Leon?
8:02 AM PST on December 22, 2022
In a testy interview with CNN's Kate Bolduan last Tuesday, censured L.A. City Councilmember Kevin de León made his weakest – and weirdest – case for hanging onto his seat heard thus far. Namely, that “tens of millions of Americans go to work every single day with folks that they don't like.”
Notably, he did not specify whether he saw himself as the burden or the one who had to endure being around unlikable people in this scenario.
But the disdain with which he told Bolduan it was a “luxury” to be able to walk away from the job hinted at his contempt for any and all who questioned him - including the colleagues that have called for his resignation. In likening resigning to a "luxury," he was also referencing his oft-declared belief that his constituents can’t afford for him to take what he says is the “easy” way out and that he is the only one who can provide them with the resources and representation they so desperately need.
Just a few hours later, however, he missed the vote to extend the pandemic eviction moratorium, something he had told Bolduan was important to his district and justified his return to chambers. [See more on the significance of the extension from councilmember Nithya Raman and its failure to pass from the L.A. Times.]
That said, the most startling part of the CNN interview came at about the five-minute mark. After being questioned about having joined in the mocking of fellow councilmember Mike Bonin’s Black son by deriding him as an accessory and a status symbol, de León suggested that the real issue was that media had neglected to put his comments in context.
Considering that then-council president Nury Martinez had referred to the boy as a "negrito" (see discussions of why it is such a loaded term here, here, and here) and disgraced labor leader Ron Herrera had compared the child to one of "those [Picaninny] statues in the plantations," it's not clear how he thinks that helps his case.
But given that he seems determined to skate by on the claim that his only crime was not shutting the conversation down, he is right that the context is worth revisiting. So let’s do so here.
As heard on the leaked recording, de León had been explaining to Martinez that by advocating for the reshuffling of economic assets during the redistricting process, Black leadership - and CD8 councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, in particular - were actively working to harm Latinos, Latino power, and, above all, de León himself.
It was racist nonsense. The reshuffling that Harris-Dawson sought was meant to address the wholesale stripping of assets from his historically Black and historically disenfranchised district a decade prior. The assets CD8 lost in 2012 had gone to CD9 (now represented by Curren Price); some of CD9’s assets, in turn, had gone to CD14 (now represented by de León). Harris-Dawson wanted to see a more equitable redistribution among the three districts so that each benefited in some way. But de León had taken that suggestion personally, telling Martinez that Black leadership were trying to “fuck another Latino – meaning me” in order to keep the majority Latino districts of CD9 and CD14 poor and, by extension, powerless.
“It’s so arrogant,” he had spat. “So arrogant.”
When Martinez responded that she’d floated the idea of encouraging Harris-Dawson to take the airport from “that little bitch Bonin” instead of stealing assets from “his brother” in CD9 (both Price and Harris-Dawson are Black), de León had yet more grievances to air.
He advised her that doing so would be asking Harris-Dawson to take from “another Black” (Bonin) on council. Apparently quite pleased with his joke, he then repeated that Bonin, who is white, was the “fourth Black” four more times. Doing so shifted the focus of the conversation from redistricting to Bonin’s alleged Black adjacence: specifically, how Bonin would never “fucking ever say a peep” to advocate for Latinos, per de León. [A running theme espoused by all four of the participants in the Fed meeting was the belief that Black leaders did “nothing” for Latinos and that those rooted in Black-brown solidarity represented a significant threat to Latino power and progress.]
Then de León - not Martinez - introduced Bonin’s son into the conversation, reminding the other participants that the boy was Black and grumbling about Bonin adopting a Black child when there were “all these Latino kids” in need.
The fact that it was de León who insinuated that the child was evidence of Bonin being anti-Latino, a political prop, and less worthy of adoption than a Latino child makes the claim that he was "shocked" by Martinez’ racist comments all the more ridiculous.
But shame is clearly no deterrent.
The de León heard on the Fed recording - defiant, resentful, anti-Black, and willing to throw Black and brown Angelenos alike under the bus to advance his own political career - is consistent with the person the world is seeing now.
Take the way he has worked to rally support for himself.
Rather than demonstrate growth or offer any evidence of bridges built with the groups he has harmed, de León and his team have spent their time scaring impoverished immigrant families and seniors into believing that council - by exploring the possibility of imposing penalties on censured councilmembers - is trying to snatch food out of their mouths.
Per the public comments decrying that motion, de León is telling supporters he is being blamed for Martinez' crimes and that both council and the protesters are putting Black people's feelings above the tangible needs of thousands of poor Latinos.
It would not be the first time he has done something like this. During the tug-of-war over assets in the 2021 redistricting battle, his supporters read from troubling scripts accusing Harris-Dawson of enriching himself, stealing resources from hardworking Latinos and giving them to Black people, and hurting CD14 in order to sink de León's mayoral bid. [See/hear some of those public comments here and here.]
Divide-and-conquer is de León's currency.
Which is why it should come as absolutely no surprise that he also managed to light a fire under the All Lives Matter/accountability-equals-lynching crowd in the process. That's what comes from rooting politics in such an antagonistic zero-sum approach.
De León appears committed to wagering his survival on many in his district, and monolingual Spanish speakers, in particular, not having heard or interrogated the full Fed recording.
It's a task made easier by legacy media's fixation on de León's responses to Martinez' abhorrent comments at the expense of almost everything else.
Jean Guerrero's recent column in the L.A. Times, for example, does not challenge de León’s claims that Martinez was the real villain or that he was cowed into silence by her threatening aura. Instead, Guerrero declares that his "words were not exactly as incriminating as his colleagues’.” She then laments that he has been "cruelly caricatured as a kind of monster" with the help of "the average liberal, who is quietly complacent about the mass erasure of Latinos but quick to virtue signal against any rhetoric that could be construed as anti-Black.”
Notably, the Latino erasure she cites, per the article she linked to, is on television. While that is indeed of profound importance, it's not one city council has any sway over. But erasure from civic life is. And by ignoring de León's role in undermining Black political and economic power, Guerrero gives his contribution to Black erasure from civic life - which accelerates Black erasure from Los Angeles - a pass.
She’s hardly the only one to do so. Satisfying as it was to see de León squirm when CNN rolled the tape on his most overtly racist comments, it remains deeply disheartening that he has largely managed to avoid having to answer questions about his direct attacks on Harris-Dawson (the councilmember he will sit next to, should he return in January), the divisive campaign he helped wage to deny assets to CD8 during redistricting, or the cynical way he and Martinez weaponized race to install a CD10 councilmember they (misguidedly) hoped would help them counterbalance councilmembers who favored Black-brown power-building/sharing.
But even setting all that aside, de León's decision to flood chambers with his supporters rather than the low-income Black and brown tenants - including some from his district! - who rallied for the extension of pandemic eviction protections should raise serious questions about his priorities.
So should the way he is using his constituents as a shield.
When video emerged of him assaulting protester Jason Reedy at a food/gift giveaway last week, it reignited the question of how best to get de León to recognize that his time is up.
From the perspective of low-income residents in need - particularly in communities of color that have been heavily impacted by gentrification - the disruptive arrival of people who haven't been present to build power with them can make folks feel disrespected and pushed aside yet again. De León has taken advantage of this dynamic, limiting his public appearances to select events with supporters and then reaffirming his commitment to representing the voices he says “the peanut gallery” and people outside CD14 are drowning out.
Meanwhile, he has avoided engaging the angry constituents from his district who have been picketing in front of his office, holding protests at Mariachi Plaza (below), and working to gather the 20,000-plus signatures needed to put a de León recall on the ballot.
And he has yet to explain why he would send poor seniors to take the heat for him at raucous council meetings – meetings where they are at risk for COVID exposure and confrontations with protesters who he claims, per his most recent statement about the altercation with Reedy, are "turning verbal threats into physical acts of violence" that could lead to “serious harm or loss of life” - so he can feel safer entering chambers.
Even his diehard supporters appear to have been left scratching their heads after de León ended up taking refuge in a back room at council last week.
Only about a dozen really vocal anti-KDL protesters left in here.
“If he’s not sitting up there, what are we doing in here?” one of the KDL supporters in the row in front of me asks a friend.
— Julia Wick (@sherlyholmes) December 13, 2022
That the man who claimed he couldn't confront Martinez because he hadn’t convened the meeting should suddenly be so defiant is confounding but not surprising. His disgraced co-conspirators were similarly unapologetic. Both Martinez and former councilmember Gil Cedillo released statements (here and here) minimizing the harm done and suggesting, as de León also has, that their prior bodies of work absolved them from having to take full responsibility for it.
There is no absolution. The overarching takeaway from the Fed tape was that every single one of the participants believed that their ability to build on those bodies of work hinged on suppressing - rather than building or sharing power with - the Black community.
In a body tasked with uplifting all Angelenos, there is no place for someone who so openly resents L.A.'s Black leadership and who plotted to reinforce historical structural harms for personal gain. Which means that there is much more at stake than the discomfort of having to work alongside someone you don't like, as de León puts it. Not least for taxpayers, who will also have to pony up at least $568,000 in combined salary and pension for him, should he manage to finish out his term.
There's still time for him to do the right thing before council reconvenes in January.
If Cedillo's google-doc approach is too tame, perhaps he could go out with an f-bomb and a flourish, à la Paul Koretz. Or a twitter poll, like Elon. Anything would be preferable to further burdening the constituents of his district - a district that, as he reiterated to CNN, is the "epicenter" for homelessness and struggling families - by forcing them to take on the additional unpaid labor involved in gathering thousands of signatures for the recall.
They deserve so much better.
Need more context on the Leaked Recording that Roiled L.A.? Find: the full recording, first posted by KNOCK-LA here; An annotated transcript by the L.A. Times here; This reporter's deep dive into the recording, the redistricting politics behind it, and the backroom deal made to install a new councilmember in the vacant CD10 seat here (if that's TL:DR, find this reporter's twitter thread breaking down key parts of the recording here); Former councilmember Mike Bonin's twitter thread on the roadblocks Martinez, Cedillo, and de León created to good policy in council here; This reporter's live-tweeting of de León's chaotic return to council on 12/13 here.
Find me on twitter at @sahrasulaiman.
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