Column: Nury Martinez divided L.A. with racism. Can the next mayor help us heal?

Los Angeles mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso.
Los Angeles mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso participate in a debate Thursday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For one last time before ballots start arriving in mailboxes for the November election, mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso will meet on stage for a televised debate Tuesday night.

I hope they are prepared. Like, really and truly prepared. Because Angelenos haven’t been this desperate for fair, moral and trustworthy leadership in decades.

For much of that, we can blame Los Angeles City Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León and L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera.


Secretly recorded audio of a conversation they had last year, uploaded to Reddit and revealed by my Times colleagues over the weekend, is full of bigoted “jokes” and half-baked plots to take Black political power and give it to Latinos.

Of course, their racist words landed in diverse Los Angeles like a bomb, widening existing fissures over race and power into canyons, especially among Black Angelenos.

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.

Oct. 10, 2022

Whichever candidate becomes mayor will have no choice but to navigate this very polarized, but still very delicate environment. To mend what’s broken at City Hall and outside of it, he or she will need both the patience of a pastor and the conflict resolution skills of a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist.

In many ways, Bass has a resume that seems built precisely for this moment.

Long before joining Congress, she founded Community Coalition, or CoCo, designed to bring more investment to South L.A. to help undo the decades of structural racism that has harmed Black and Latino Angelenos alike. Solidarity among people of color remains core to the nonprofit’s mission to this day.

It’s why in every statement her campaign has put out about the leaked audio — including one on Monday calling on Martinez, Cedillo, De León and Herrera to resign — says some version of the following: “For more than 30 years, I have built alliances between Los Angeles’ Black and Latino communities to increase our people’s health, safety and prosperity.”

And: “We must move past the politics of divide and conquer. There is no place for division and hate in Los Angeles. The challenges we face in our city affect us all — and we must unite around our shared values.”


Caruso, however, thinks he knows what to do because he is an outsider to City Hall.

“This weekend’s news confirmed that our city’s problems won’t be solved while the corruption of City Hall persists,” he tweeted Monday, echoing Bass’ calls for resignations. “To move in a new direction, we need new leadership.”

Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, left, and L.A. City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson.
Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, left, and Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson speak during a news conference on Monday in Inglewood on ,council President Nury Martinez’s racist comments made public Sunday.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Let’s just say I’m not convinced that a white billionaire is the right person to bring down the temperature of racial tensions between Black and Latino Angelenos and help us heal, but I’m willing to listen.

And both Caruso and Bass better have good answers. Because, as inclusive as Los Angeles aspires to be, race-based inequities run through every aspect of public policy in this city.

On homelessness, for example, Black people continue to be disproportionately represented in shelters and on the streets. Decades of housing discrimination continues to take a toll. Meanwhile, for other reasons probably related to the COVID-19 pandemic, there also was an uptick in unhoused Latinos, according to the latest survey of homelessness in Los Angeles County.

Any policy solutions must take these factors into account. It’s not one size fits all.

On public safety, it’s the same thing. Black people — followed closely by Latinos — continue to be disproportionately represented among both the perpetrators and victims of violent crimes, as well as the victims of police shootings.


Meanwhile, trust has been broken. We have a sheriff running for reelection who has made anti-Black comments. And now, we have three Latino members of the City Council who have done the same.

“It isn’t just that these folks are members of the council. You have the leader of the council, the person in charge of the homelessness committee, who was so hostile to Black people,” said Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents the last district in South L.A. with a majority of voting-age residents who are Black. “Forty percent of the homeless people are Black.”

So much for solidarity. Leaked audio of L.A.’s Latino leaders plotting to dilute Black political power is sure to lead to new fears and new divisions.

Oct. 9, 2022

Then there’s the City Council itself.

On Monday, Martinez apologized again and then stepped down as president. On Tuesday, she announced that she’s taking a leave of absence. Apparently, she prefers to drag out the inevitable because the list of people and institutions calling for her to resign from the council completely is getting longer by the hour. It’s only a matter of time.

Herrera has offered his resignation to the executive board of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, earning applause from Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a Latina who leads the California Labor Federation.

“We ultimately prioritize working class solidarity across all racial groups above all else,” she tweeted on Monday night.

Cedillo and De León have yet to do anything other than apologize.

“We can’t have a City Council where every day we go in, and there’s someone sitting there that called a Black child a ‘monkey.’ It’s not tenable,” Harris-Dawson said. “It’s inconsistent with the city of Los Angeles. It’s not who we want to be.”


I should mention that he was speaking at a news conference, alongside Assemblymembers Issac Bryan and Tina McKinnor, to endorse Erin Darling in his race for an open Westside seat on the City Council.

But it had the dual function of trashing Darling’s opponent, Traci Park, for defending the city of Anaheim, in her job as an attorney, from accusations by a Black employee that a white employee had used the N-word “numerous times.”

Harris-Dawson said Park had “forfeited” her right to seek office. Voters will have to decide. But that speaks volumes about the state of race relations in L.A. right now.

Then there’s the fact that Caruso or Bass also will come into office with a mostly new City Council. At least four members are leaving, including Cedillo. A fifth, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, might lose reelection. I wouldn’t bet on Martinez or De León being around the dais at City Hall either.

And none of this even includes the situation involving suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who goes on trial on federal bribery charges in the coming months. He has pleaded not guilty.

The political implosion, unparalleled in recent L.A. history, was set off by a leaked audio recording reported Sunday by The Times.

Oct. 10, 2022

Meanwhile, his interim replacement, Heather Hutt, has gotten pulled into the drama created by Martinez, De León, Cedillo and Herrera. They were recorded discussing her as someone who would “support us.” On Monday, Hutt also called on the council members to resign.


“I am a Black woman, not a pawn,” she said in a statement. “I had no prior knowledge of the conversation.”

All of this makes it abundantly clear that neither Bass nor Caruso will be able to truly attack the city’s problems without cleaning up the emotional and psychological mess that these Latino “leaders” left behind. Rebuilding the alliances of solidarity will be hard, but I have to believe it’s possible.

Tanya Kateri Hernandez, an Afro Latina and a Fordham University professor who has researched anti-Black racism by Latinos, told me the most important thing the next mayor can do to help us heal is avoid treating what happened as an isolated incident.

“What we miss are the ways in which this is part of — unfortunately — Latino racial pathologies,” said Hernandez, author of “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality,” “These people resign, but then the bottom line is problematic dynamics remain unaddressed and unspoken of. You can’t intervene in something that you’re trying to be blind about.”

On Tuesday night, maybe we’ll see which candidate — Bass or Caruso — truly has their eyes open.