Column: De León, lapped by mayoral front-runners in heavily Latino L.A., begins last-ditch sprint

Mayoral candidate Kevin de León talks with campaign staff and volunteers at his campaign headquarters.
Mayoral candidate Kevin de León talks with campaign staff and volunteers at his campaign headquarters on Saturday.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, who is running a distant third in mayoral campaign polling, got to Armon’s Restaurant in Eagle Rock at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, ready to fuel up for the last leg of the race.

He always orders the same thing, said chef Pat Chinda. Corned beef hash, and make sure the edges are crispy.

But De León shook it up, ordering sausage and eggs, with chili flakes cooked into the sausage.

Now De León is trying to shake up his campaign and turn up the heat. With just over a week to go, he’s trying to catch front-runners Rick Caruso and Karen Bass.


“I was at a kickoff for a youth program and a 10-year-old Latina came up to me and said, ‘Are you going to beat Caruso?’” De León told me. “And I said, ‘I’m sure going to try.’”

Is it already too late?

When he entered the race last fall, a few months ahead of Caruso, De León — the first Latino ever to lead the state Senate — looked like he’d be a top contender. He’s a liberal Democrat in a political establishment that has shifted to the left in recent years, and he’s the Spanish-speaking son of immigrants in a city that’s roughly half Latino.

The Grove has hosted multiple campaign events in recent weeks as Rick Caruso’s Disney-esque mall has become an unlikely L.A. campaign destination.

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In 2005, Antonio Villaraigosa trounced Mayor Jim Hahn, taking more than 80% of the Latino vote and roughly half of both the Black and white vote. So why has De León been stuck in single digits in polls while Caruso and Bass hover in the mid-30% range, with Caruso holding down roughly as much Latino support as De León in at least one poll.

Lots of reasons.

First and foremost, this is not a fair race.

With his legislative record and working-class immigrant success story, De León would be leading the race if he were spending like Caruso, said Sonja Diaz, director of UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative.


“His policy acumen is bar none … whether it’s climate change, pension reform or immigrant rights,” Diaz said.

But Caruso has been dipping into a piggy bank the size of Arena. The billionaire mall mogul has poured nearly $30 million into his campaign so far, and this is only the primary. He’s flooded English- and Spanish-language airwaves and digital media with nonstop self-promotion and promises of easy fixes for complicated problems.

De León, who is not rich, hasn’t raised enough money to fill up Caruso’s yacht with gas. He’ll have spent roughly $2 million by the June 7 primary, and Bass will have spent around $3 million.

It’s Kevin and Karen vs. Goliath.

De León noted that when Villaraigosa beat incumbent Hahn in 2005, Hahn was a pauper compared with Caruso. Another detail in Villaraigosa’s favor was that he was running to be the first Latino leader of the city in modern times. It wasn’t quite Fernandomania, but Latinos were stoked.

Also, Villaraigosa was home-grown, with a celebrity glow and the gift of gab. De León, on the other hand, was born in L.A. but raised in San Diego, most of his notable work was logged in Sacramento, he’s been on the City Council for only two years, and he’s reserved and private. Villaraigosa, by the way, says he and De León are friends, but he committed to Bass before De León jumped into the race.

“I respect Antonio’s bona fides and where he came from,” De León said in a bit of a snippy moment over breakfast. “But we are two very different people. I don’t party with Charlie Sheen in Cabo, and I don’t drink thousand-dollar bottles of wine in L.A.’s finest restaurants. I keep my nose to the grindstone like my mother did, I work really hard, I come home late at night. If you talk to my friends and staffers, they’ll tell you I live quite a boring life.”

Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation, put it like this:

“Kevin’s not the backslapping kind of guy, that’s just not who he is.… But I think he would be a really good mayor. He knows how to work bureaucracies. He did it up in Sacramento, and as a City Council member, he understands that anyone who’s going to be a good mayor has to bring the council along.”

De León has the backing of some labor unions, but not all, and some Latino leaders, but not all. And some Democratic power brokers still resent De León for trying to take down Dianne Feinstein four years ago in a failed bid for her U.S. Senate seat.

De León knows he’s a longshot, but says it’s not over. He’s saved his limited funds for an 11th-hour blitz of advertising and canvassing, hoping to make a two-person general election runoff. He figures that if he can nail down 60% of the Latino vote, he’s got a shot.

“I still think Kevin will get the largest part of the Latino vote,” said Fernando Guerra, who runs Loyola Marymount’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

Historically, Guerra said, many Latinos tune in near the end of a campaign and vote on election day. De León needs a big turnout to make it to a runoff, Guerra said. The bigger the turnout, the higher the percentage of Latino voters.

Homelessness and crime are the two hottest topics in the race, and Caruso has gone heavy on both. On homelessness, he says the problem is lousy leadership by a corrupt and/or inept cabal of politicians, and you can’t trust longtime office holders like Bass and De León to suddenly come up with the fixes.

There’s some truth in that, but having sat down with Caruso, Bass and De León, I can tell you the latter two have a far more nuanced understanding of the issue and what to do about it. Whether that translates into improvement is a big question. But Caruso is telling people what they want to hear without laying out a realistic plan.

On the other hand, De León was in the state Legislature during a 12-year period when the state housing affordability and homelessness crisis grew out of control, and he and other lawmakers didn’t do nearly enough about it.

He told me housing wasn’t an area of expertise for him as a legislator, but that in two years, he’s gotten more homeless people indoors than any other council member, using temporary and permanent housing.

To make the runoff, though, he knows he’s got to sell voters on something bigger.

Namely, that as the son of a single, immigrant mother who worked as a housekeeper (and died of ovarian cancer at 54), he understands Los Angeles in a way Caruso never will.

“You have to be super rich or you’re super out of luck in this city,” said De León, who says he’ll come up with assistance for working people who can’t afford to buy a house.

One candidate would carry on the progressive ways of retiring incumbent Mike Bonin. But most others in L.A.’s Council District 11 say they would increase policing and remove homeless encampments.

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Los Angeles needs an economic transformation, he said, and it should begin with community colleges training students for green jobs that pay living wages and help address climate change.

At Armon’s Restaurant, De León found three votes at a table where George and Alcira Acevedo were having breakfast with their daughter Alyssa, a Cornell University student. She said she’s planning on becoming a labor lawyer, and she wants a mayor who can relate to working people of color.

At a pep rally for a few dozen campaign workers Saturday morning in Hermon, De León said he was running for mayor because “I’m so tired of seeing people like my mother left behind.”

He was talked up by L.A. area Democrats U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, Assemblymembers Miguel Santiago and Mike Fong and state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, the former labor leader. Durazo said she met De León nearly 30 years ago when he was protesting Prop. 187, the landmark ballot initiative to limit immigrant rights.

“Kevin was one of those young kids who came along and said we’ve got to fight back,” Durazo said.

Campaign volunteer Suzanne Manriquez, a retiree, told me De León’s office responds when she calls about problems in El Sereno, and he’s gotten homeless people off the streets “in a compassionate way.”

“What I like about him is that he’s not giving up,” said David Rockello, an artist who lives in Mid-City. “He’s still fighting.”