“The council member has received death threats,” spokesman Pete Brown said. “In fact, we are hiring security to come to our tree lighting events.”
His life on the run has prolonged a painful chapter for Los Angeles following the release of the recording in October. The episode has poisoned local politics just as Mayor Karen Bass takes office. Now, she is forced to deal with the consequences in a city already facing bitter divisions and a variety of daunting challenges.
De León doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, no matter how hard everyone else works to push him aside.
When de León tried to get out of exile on Friday, appearing at a council meeting for the first time in 59 days, the audience turned to shouting and enough comrades withdrew for the council to go into recess. When the session resumed, the embattled council member was gone, and critics blasted him again.
Later that night, de León was involved in an altercation at a holiday event where he was caught on video grabbing a protester and pushing him against a table. Both de León and the protester, activist Jason Reedy, have filed allegations of assault on each other.
De León apologized for his comments about the recording from October or so. In a handful of media appearances, he sought to downplay and explain your comments. And he has tried to keep a low profile, as much as possible in an age of social media. What he hasn’t done is resign, despite calls for him to do so by President Joe Biden and virtually every Democratic politician in California.
Instead, the longtime former state legislator, who won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party for his 2018 challenge to the Senator. Diana Feinsteinhe is trying to withstand intense pressure and hold his own, at least for the last two years of his term: all while collecting a salary of around $218,000.
It could work. De León remains relatively popular in his district, which includes the Eagle Rock and Boyle Heights neighborhoods, making the recall campaign a risky and expensive undertaking.
“Withdrawals cost money, and they cost money from our dollars, from people’s pockets,” said Maraky Alemseged, an organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, one of the activist groups that has been chasing De León around the city. “For people to have to put money, resources, energy, time into a recall election, to me it’s just unrealistic and not right.”
Meanwhile, de León has been seen by only a small fraction of Angelenos since Oct. 11. It was then that he and Councilman Gil Cedillo walked out of a council hearing besieged by protesters, shortly after the public first learned of the recording he was presenting along with Council President Nury Martínez, Cedillo and union leader Ron Herrera.
Herrera promptly resigned. Martínez, after some initial resistance, also resigned. Cedillo, with only a few weeks left in his tenure, quietly withdrew from the stage. But de León, as part of an apology tour with select local media outlets, has presented a shifting defense.
The council member said the most offensive comment on the recording, in which Martinez referred to a council member’s adopted black daughter as a monkey, was not made by him, though he admitted he should have rebuked her at the time. He tried to show that he was misunderstood when he said Councilman Mike Bonin, who is white, shows off his son at public events as a tote bag, claiming he was referring to Martinez’s favorite luxury accessories. And he apologized for the racist comments Martinez and Cedillo made about people in the largely rural Mexican state of Oaxaca.
His explanation has not appeased critics.
“I think it’s extremely offensive and it makes me 100 percent uncomfortable,” said Claudia Oliveira, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, who is also an adoptee. “Who is he to determine that he wasn’t being racist? That is clearly racism.”
Still, there’s apparently little angry council members or residents can do anytime soon to oust him. Los Angeles officials say they lack the power to remove a sitting council member who has not been indicted on criminal charges, as two have been in recent years. And a serious attempt to qualify for removal has yet to materialize, as vocal activists push for his resignation.
All this raises a question: Can De León hold on?
The council’s new president, Paul Krekorian, turned down his request to be excused from attending meetings. De León continues to provide services to voters and does not plan to let the opposition prevent him from attending council meetings, according to his spokesperson. He is expected to attend the next council meeting on Tuesday.
“Ninety percent of the work we do is specific to us, our council office,” said Brown, his spokesman. “We work with departments. That work has continued throughout this situation.”
Protesters and some residents have rejected this characterization, complaining that district offices have been largely closed to walk-in services. Of the four de León district offices on a recent weekday afternoon, only the Boyle Heights location was open, with staff sitting at a table blocking the front door. Calls to office phone numbers went unanswered.
When asked about the closed offices, Brown said staff may have been working in the field and that the table at the Boyle Heights location serves as the registration desk.
If de León returns to City Hall again this week, council meetings could be halted again.
Melina Abdullah, co-founder of BLM-LA, said the group had secured a commitment from some council members to break the quorum if De León appears again. And ongoing protests that at times resulted in officers blocking entrance to council chambers would likely explode as they did on Friday, when officers had to break up a near-fight between an activist and a De León supporter.
Several high-profile motions, including a plan to revitalize downtown Los Angeles, have stalled because members have been reluctant to vote on articles written by de León.
“That is a very bad situation not only for the community of [Council District 14] inside, but for the entire city, because there are businesses that are currently frozen and cannot move forward,” said Henry Pérez, executive director of the Lucha Action Fund, a Boyle Heights-based nonprofit.
Some groups in de León’s district, including the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, say they are prepared to bypass de León and seek out other council members to file motions for the area. That process was used most recently after José Huizar was removed from the council following his indictment on bribery charges.
“I don’t think there’s anything that prohibits that,” said Hugh Esten, Krekorian’s director of communications. “And given the circumstances, it seems that it would be advisable.”
A serious withdrawal effort is still possible.
the The Eastern Area Progressive Democrats club is looking at all options to get rid of De León, whom the group calls “ineffective and irrevocably damaged,” and recently voted to authorize a recall effort, Chairman Hans Johnson said. But, he added, activists are wary of trading De León for another product of a broken machine.
“This outrageous failure of representation is not happening in isolation,” Johnson said. “We have to reckon with a pattern of corruption and selfishness that makes the actions of this council member even uglier.”
Sacramento-based consultant Russell Lowery said he has been in contact with potential funders for the retirement who include prominent black and Latino business owners willing to commit “several hundred thousand dollars.”
“There are a lot of people talking about it,” Lowery said. “It’s just whether or not the leaders want to pull the trigger.”
Even if the money does materialize, Lowery said, potential backers must consider the political consequences. The people who called for de León’s resignation would be pressured to take positions on the removal.
“Doing something in Los Angeles politics is about coalitions,” Lowery said. “You’re not just up against Kevin de León, you’re up against anyone who’s involved in that whole coalition.”
There is also the question of finding a successor. Los Angeles’ recall system requires potential replacements to appear on the same ballot as the target incumbent, and activists have just finished the grueling process of cultivating and pushing 2022 candidates.
“His retirement is next in the planning and execution for many progressives in Los Angeles and California,” said Ludovic Blain, who runs the California Donor Table, a progressive fundraising center, but they want a candidate “who can progressively govern on behalf of key communities in Los Angeles, including those who were harmed by that recording.”
DeLeón’s detractors know full well that the councilman could fight impeachment with the estimated $3.1 million he has hidden in a campaign account with the lieutenant governor. They also know that the power to remove him will rest entirely with the residents of his district, where some are willing to give him a second chance.
Juan Sanjuan, a restaurant owner and founder of Chefs Supporting Chefs, a nonprofit organization that gives away free meals, said de León was instrumental in organizing food drives during the height of the pandemic. Sanjuan, who has lived in the district for decades, said this support is part of a bigger investment in the Latino community that he has seen since de León took office.
“More than anything, Mr. Kevin de León supports us because we are here for the community,” Sanjuan said. “I am not here for politics. If a politician is willing to support us, to help our people, then that, to me, counts a lot.”
Aracelly Cauich, a Boyle Heights resident, echoed that sentiment, saying de León helped her set up a nonprofit that offers mental health classes at a long-neglected local park. But, Pérez countered, De León could ultimately harm those very neighborhoods if he remains in office, especially if his decision leads to a recall election.
“You have to understand that you are potentially creating a costly situation for your community and for the city as a whole,” Perez said.