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The Los Angeles City Council’s racist recording scandal, explained

In their quest to shore up power, four Latino leaders managed to set back the city’s multiracial progress, and Latino representation.

Protesters demonstrate outside Los Angeles City Hall on October 12, calling for the resignations of city council members Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo in the wake of a leaked audio recording of racist and bigoted comments. City Council President Nury Martinez resigned earlier that day.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

Protests and calls for two city council members to resign continue in Los Angeles, after a leaked audio recording of racist and bigoted comments by four of the most powerful city leaders appeared on social media October 9.

First brought to national attention by the Los Angeles Times, the audio recordings captured former Council President Nury Martinez, along with two Latino council colleagues and a top Latino labor leader, making racist and incendiary remarks about Black, Indigenous, Armenian, Jewish, and gay people in the city — including fellow council members.

Martinez resigned after being forced to apologize and facing pressure from local, state, and national leaders, including President Joe Biden, to give up her seat. Ron Herrera, the labor leader in the recording of an October 2021 meeting, also resigned his post as president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor later in the week.

The two other participants, council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, have resisted calls to resign. Cedillo’s term is up later this year, after losing to a left-wing challenger this summer, but de León’s term isn’t up until 2024.

The news seemed to come out of nowhere, rocking a city in the closing weeks of a mayoral race whose two candidates have connections to the figures on the tape. The council’s work came to a standstill, leaving the citizens of Los Angeles without a fully functioning city government.

Protesters managed to shut the body down for a week, and its interim president, Mitch O’Farrell, said it would not meet until Cedillo and de León resigned. Because they refuse to do so, O’Farrell stripped them of committee assignments. This week, the council did meet, despite protests from some council members, in order to pick a new president. They met remotely because of Covid-19 exposures.

The leaders at the center of the controversy, and their statements

The officials captured in the recording were meeting to talk about redistricting in the city. It’s a once-in-a-decade process in which an independent commission offers the council recommendations for divvying up the city’s neighborhoods for council seats. All four discussed ways to consolidate their own power while mocking others on the council, including Mike Bonin, a gay white council member representing the city’s Westside, whose young Black son Martinez said “parece changuito” (seems like a monkey).

Martinez, who sparked controversy even in her resignation letter, used the most offensive language. A longtime Angeleno politician and community leader from a heavily Mexican American region of the San Fernando Valley, she complained about Bonin’s son, saying the politician treated the boy like an “accessory.”

Attacking LA District Attorney George Gascón, she said he was “with the Blacks,” and she demeaned Latinos from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, many of whom are from Indigenous communities, referring to “little short dark people” who live in a section of the city’s Koreatown that the group wanted to carve up.

“I don’t know where these people are from, I don’t know what village they came out of,” Martinez said. “’Tan feos,” she added, shorthand Spanish for “they’re ugly.”

Responding to her, Cedillo remarks, “Puro Oaxacans. Puro Oaxacan Korean. Not even like Kevin. Little ones.”

In another clip, de León suggested to Martinez that Bonin uses his son for show: “Just like when Nury brings her Goyard bag or the Louis Vuitton handbag.”

“Su negrito, like on the side,” Martinez replies, referring to the child using a derogatory word for a Black person. Martinez goes on to suggest the child needs a “beatdown” for being raised “like a little white kid.”

They continue on in the clips, making insulting comments about the city’s Jewish and Armenian communities and their prominent leaders, as they talk about the best way to shore up voting power for themselves, and to make future elections difficult for progressives and rival politicians.

The power struggle at the heart of the recording, and that awaits in the future

The recordings not only provide a remarkable look behind the curtain of power to see how the city’s top leaders operate, but are also a stunning blow to minority political power in the city, including the likely end of careers for people like de León and Martinez, who were seen as trailblazers for Latino political representation and power.

People hold signs and shout slogans as they protest before the cancellation of the Los Angeles City Council meeting on October 12.
Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

That was obvious in the chorus of calls for their resignations: among the first national leaders to call for their ouster was California Sen. Alex Padilla, who grew up with Martinez in the San Fernando Valley and came of political age at the same time as de León and Cedillo in the 1990s, when California Latinos were organizing against Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant law that passed by referendum in 1994.

Of the generation of Latino political leaders that won elections at the state and local levels after getting their start in the Prop 187 era, few remain politically unscathed. Some have been sidelined by criminal investigations or personal scandals. Others simply lost elections or have fizzled out after appointments to federal offices. With de León and Cedillo on the verge of a political death knell, they too will join that lot.

The loss of each has meant reduced representation. Now, LA’s nearly 50 percent Latino population has lost three more prominent voices. Especially notable is de León, who made history in California politics as the first Latino leader of the state senate, dared to challenge the state’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, and ran for mayor this year.

The clips also revealed the mindset of power scarcity that still controls the city. As LA Times columnist Erika D. Smith wrote: “This entire ugly incident blows a massive hole in the narrative that many would like to believe about Los Angeles — and about California — being some sort of multicultural mecca, where Black and brown people build alliances to work together in solidarity toward solving problems.”

At the heart of the recordings was a desire to siphon power away from Black Angelenos and other minority communities to ensure — as Herrera called it — a “little Latino caucus of, you know, our own.” It’s true that despite the city being half Latino, Latino members only make up about a third of the 15-person council. “But the answer cannot be a city run by Latinos only for Latinos,” Smith wrote.

With an election around the corner, the new mayor will be tasked with helping to heal these divisions. That next executive will need to respond to calls to reform the council to address some of the structural reasons a conversation like this even happened at all, like expanding the council’s size and changing the redistricting process.

They may have some help with that: California’s attorney general has said he will investigate the city’s redistricting process, and progressive Los Angeles congressional candidates have called for the US Department of Justice to also investigate redistricting.

Both mayoral candidates had ties to the four people in the recordings: Karen Bass, the frontrunner according to polls, represented South LA for years in Congress and the state assembly, and was an active local organizer who received an endorsement from Martinez. Her opponent, businessman Rick Caruso, received an endorsement from Cedillo. They both ran against de León, and whoever wins will have to work with a council bereft of community trust and full of emotional pain.

Update, October 19, 4:07 pm: This story was originally published on October 14 and has been updated to include LA City Council’s interim president, Mitch O’Farrell, stripping council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León of their committee assignments.

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