Bass, Villaraigosa join call for unity and healing after racist remarks by L.A. councilmembers

Karen Bass speaks onstage
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Karen Bass, shown at recent debate, said Tuesday that the uproar over the leaked recording an “opportunity to be real with each other, to use this as a catalyst to move forward.”
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Before a closed-door meeting at Los Angeles Trade Technical College with community leaders and elected officials on Tuesday morning, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) called for unity.

“We have been through things like this before, and here we are again,” said Bass, who is running for mayor, referring to events such as the 1992 L.A. riots. “When our city exploded ... we navigated that together.”

Audio of Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo speaking with labor leader Ron Herrera quickly became a new and incendiary issue in the Nov. 8 election.

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Bass convened the meeting to build unity and bridge the racial divide after a recording surfaced of City Councilwoman Nury Martinez making racist remarks in a meeting with two other councilmembers and a prominent labor leader.

Martinez, who referred to a Black child as a “changuito,” or little monkey, and to Oaxacans as “short little dark people” in the recording, stepped down as president of the L.A. City Council and has taken a leave of absence from the council.

At one point in the recording, Councilman Kevin De León appeared to compare a white colleague’s handling of his child, who is Black, to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Bass and her opponent in the mayoral race, Rick Caruso, are among the many politicians who have called for Martinez, De León and Gil Cedillo, the third councilmember in the conversation, to resign.

The fourth person on the recording, Ron Herrera, resigned from his post as president of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation on Monday night.

Those in attendance at L.A. Trade Tech included former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), Los Angeles Urban League President and Chief Executive Michael Lawson, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Executive Director Angelica Salas and L.A. County Democratic Party Chair Mark Gonzalez.

The meeting took place as protesters flooded the L.A. City Council chambers, chanting, “We’re with the Blacks,” and, “Shut it down.”

L.A. City Councilmember Nury Martinez is taking a leave of absence amid outrage over her racist comments heard on a leaked audio recording.

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Bass called the events of the last 72 hours a “crisis” that has exposed the city’s racial divide and pained the community.

While she said she rejects any attempt to “exploit this moment to cause further divide,” she called it an “opportunity to be real with each other, to use this as a catalyst to move forward.”

She said she will work with community leaders to create an action plan for building unity.

“The frame in which we will function this morning is to move forward as a city, and we know we must move past the politics of divide and conquer,” she said.

Also speaking before the meeting, Villaraigosa said he had left voicemails Monday with the four people involved. He said he connected with one of the councilmembers, whom he did not identify, and asked all three to resign, saying that the leaked recording had set back the work that has been done to bridge the racial divide.

“People described me as a Latino candidate for mayor, and I took umbrage with that. I said I wanted to be everyone’s mayor,” said Villaraigosa, who called for “healers” and “shepherds.” Villaraigosa served as L.A. mayor from 2005 to 2013.

Los Angeles is a place where people come with hopes and dreams from every corner of the world, he said.

“This wasn’t a five-second conversation. This was upwards of an hour and filled with vitriol and hate,” he said. “There’s no room for that.”

Gomez, whose congressional district overlaps with the city council districts of De León and Cedillo, invoked his newborn son.

“Eight weeks ago, my wife gave birth to a beautiful Black, brown child,” he said. “When we heard those words [in the recording], it hit deep, and the legacy that we should all think about is how do we leave the world better for those kids .... My wife and I are trying to figure out, how do we raise this child in this environment?”

After the meeting, Bass declined to weigh in on who should take Martinez’s place as City Council president, saying that councilmembers should decide.

“We just had a meeting for 90 minutes with city leaders to talk about the outrage, the pain, but also how we move forward as a city,” Bass said. “Today, we came together.”

Elsewhere other city leaders also called for healing.

“I call on Latino leadership to stand with Black leadership. We need to commit to repair the damage,” said Richard Alarcón, who represented the San Fernando Valley for two decades at the city and state levels.

Martinez worked for Alarcón when he served in the state Senate.

At L.A. City Hall, Nury Martinez has been known as a blunt speaker. She is now in political free fall over words that she was caught saying on leaked audio.

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“I’m not hearing enough voices from Hispanic leadership,” Alarcón added. “Hispanic leadership needs to repair this damage.”

Martinez’s comments set back the city by “20 years in term of Black-brown relations,” he said.

Alarcón also said that it wasn’t enough for Martinez to take a leave of absence and continue to collect a city paycheck — she should resign.

“She is stalling,” he said. “The pressure is only going to increase.”