Column: The L.A. City Council mess shows how Democrats and Republicans react differently to scandal

Nury Martinez
Nury Martinez stepped down from the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday in the aftermath of a leaked recording on which she was heard making racist and bigoted remarks.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

There isn’t much good to come out of the latest scandal in Los Angeles politics, which involves a recording of a racist conversation among Latino political leaders.

The fallout does point to a fascinating distinction in recent times between how the Democratic and Republican political worlds have responded to scandal in their ranks.

To put it succinctly, when scandal strikes among Democrats, resignations pile up. When scandal strikes Republicans, the GOP treats it as a badge of honor.


Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat.

— Richard Nixon, setting the pattern for GOP response to scandal in 1952

In L.A., former City Council President Nury Martinez, heard on the leaked tape making racist remarks about Black people and Oaxacans as well as crude remarks about Jewish people and Armenians, has resigned her council seat.

Ron Herrera, another participant in the conversation, has stepped down as president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Two other participants in the conversation, Councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, haven’t resigned as of this writing.

But the clamor for their departure has swept through Democratic Party ranks; they’ve reached as high as President Biden, who has called for them to step down. They may try to stave off demands that they quit, but at this moment their political futures are dim indeed.

Contrast that with the response within the GOP to, say, the revelations about Herschel Walker, the party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate from Georgia. Evidence shows that Walker, who has paraded around as an antiabortion candidate in consonance with the party’s draconian antiabortion position, paid for a woman’s abortion in 2009.


Walker doesn’t deny that he paid the woman, only that the money was for an abortion. But even though the evidence is strong, Republicans haven’t allowed it to shake their support for the candidate even one little bit.

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“I think we’re going to stick with Walker,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told CNN on Tuesday, a sentiment echoed by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who announced plans to campaign for Walker even after the scandal broke.

Democrats so often and so rapidly pull the trigger on their accused wrongdoers that they’ve sometimes been criticized for moving too hastily. One example is the case of former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), an effective politician who was forced to resign in 2018 in the wake of accusations of sexual misconduct, some dating from his stint as a writer and cast member of “Saturday Night Live” for more than a decade.

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But questions have always swirled about the accusations, and numerous political leaders who joined the chorus calling for Franken’s resignation have since expressed regret that he wasn’t afforded the opportunity to address the charges before the Senate Ethics Committee.

Donald Trump was credibly accused during his first presidential campaign of sexual assault — indeed, in a notorious recording he even boasted about some of his behavior. The disclosure of the tape seemed likely to derail his campaign, but it wasn’t long before “the spin began,” as Lili Loofbourow of Slate put it in 2020. “An event that everyone at the time saw as manifestly disqualifying got repackaged as no big deal, and also somehow ‘fake news.’”

Republicans haven’t always turned a blind eye to scandal in their midst. Dwight Eisenhower’s White House chief of staff, Sherman Adams, was forced to resign when he was found to have accepted an expensive vicuña coat and other gifts from a businessman under federal investigation. But that was in 1958. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) lost their jobs for sexual misconduct, in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

None of this necessarily means that Republicans are more scandal-prone than Democrats. My colleagues David Zahniser, Julia Wick, Dakota Smith and Benjamin Oreskes called the roll of Democratic indictments on Wednesday: Last year, they reported, Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges. He was suspended by his colleagues.

Earlier, Councilmember Jose Huizar was charged with racketeering, bribery and fraud. He was suspended six months before resigning. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Nor does it mean that there are no cases of Democrats hanging firm in the face of shame or Republicans stepping down under a cloud.

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Former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, refused to resign after a photo surfaced from his medical school yearbook showing him either in blackface or Ku Klux Klan robes. (It was never certain which of the two figures in the photo was him.) He served out his term, which ended this year.

But the distinction between Democratic and Republican responses to scandal is glaring today. That may be traceable to the divergence in expectations among the Democratic and Republican bases.

Democrats expect their politicians to at least strive to uphold civic and moral values. When their leaders fall short of that ideal, they react with anger and shame. That’s true even when the consequences could lead to defeat at the polls or the loss of a political leader whose effectiveness — notwithstanding his or her disgrace — is indisputable.

In the sedulous pursuit of power at all costs, on the other hand, Republicans are willing to overlook disgraceful behavior. It’s a short step from overlooking scandal to celebrating it.

The Republican habit of standing firm in the face of scandal can be traced to Richard Nixon and his famous “Checkers” speech of Sept. 23, 1952, when he took to the national TV airwaves to defend himself live against charges of misusing a political slush fund.

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In the view of former Nixon speechwriter Lee Huebner, the speech presaged the Republican and conservative practice of “emphasizing appeals to social and cultural ‘identity’ rather than economic interests” to appeal to voters.

Nixon, whose position as vice president on the Eisenhower ticket hung in the balance, spoke abjectly of the financial pressures he and his wife, Pat, faced: “Pat doesn’t have a mink coat,” he told a massive TV audience. “But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything.”

The defining line in the speech was his reference to a cocker spaniel puppy named Checkers that he admitted receiving as a gift. “The kids, like all kids, loved the dog,” he said, adding that regardless of the criticism, “we’re going to keep it.”

It remains a Republican and conservative habit to defend some of the most malodorous behavior today.

After the egregious Alex Jones was hit with a nearly $1-billion judgment Wednesday for relentlessly purveying the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, in which 20 children and six adults were murdered, was a fake, his cause was taken up by Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who tweeted that he was the victim of “political persecution.”

“No matter what you think of Alex Jones all he did was speak words,” she tweeted. “He was not the one who pulled the trigger. ... That’s what freedom of speech is. Freedom to speak words.”

One wonders how far this manner of argument would get if not for the connivance of the political press. We’re not only talking about Fox News, but the mainstream press that feels the urge to find “balance” in every report of wrongdoing, a discreditable practice known as “bothsidesism.”

This week, for instance, NBC News paired the Herschel Walker revelations with a report that John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, required a transcription monitor during a news interview because of the residual effects of a recent stroke.

“Fetterman, Walker face political challenges outside of the overall environment,” NBC headlined an online report, as though an antiabortion candidate’s financing of an abortion was somehow equivalent to the challenge of recovering from a stroke.

Bothsidesism only goes so far, apparently. NBC noted that Fetterman’s campaign has “denied requests for his medical records,” but didn’t mention how closely guarded Trump’s medical condition was when he came down with a COVID infection during his presidential term.