Column: De León and Cedillo abetted Martinez’s racist talk. Now they’re paying the political price

Men in suits stand and sit behind a desk
Councilmembers Gil Cedillo, left, and Kevin de León at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The first step toward purging racism from our midst is to not talk like a racist.

That’s because talking like a racist is being racist. Ditto for bigotry. Or homophobia.

A second step is to not tolerate someone else talking like a racist — whether it’s hate speech or a so-called joke. Racism in any form isn’t funny. It’s offensive.

So, when someone is talking like a racist, a listener should tell the person to cool it. That stuff is not appreciated.

The offender will probably back off — or, if not, at least know the words being spewed aren’t socially acceptable. And most people want to be socially acceptable. Particularly politicians.


That’s where my two former Sacramento acquaintances — guys I covered extensively when they were important legislators — made their politically fatal mistake: They allowed then-Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez to rattle on with her racist diatribe without telling her they didn’t want to hear it.

In fact, they laughed, a leaked recording of the nearly year-old conversation indicated. Councilmember Kevin de León even added to the racist dialogue.

Councilmember Gil Cedillo later acknowledged he should have shut Martinez up.

“It is with a broken heart that I resign my seat for Council District 6,” Nury Martinez wrote in a statement.

Oct. 12, 2022

“While I did not engage in the conversation in question, I was present at times,” he said in a statement after the news broke Sunday. “It is my instinct to hold others accountable when they use derogatory or racially divisive language.

“Clearly, I should have intervened,” he said.

But that goes against human nature, doesn’t it? It’s easier just to go along and not confront a colleague, a friend or a relative. It takes guts to speak up and set the person straight.

“It’s conflict confrontation avoidance,” says Roger Salazar, a longtime political consultant who works a lot on Latino politics and causes.

“We’re all, to a certain extent, guilty of this. You make a choice. Do you call it out? That takes a little bit of profile in courage. Or do you do what a lot of people do and say nothing? There are a lot of people out there who wish they had said something when they had the chance but didn’t.”


California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said his office will investigate L.A.’s 2021 redistricting process in the wake of the leaked audio scandal.

Oct. 12, 2022

People like Cedillo and De León.

I asked Salazar how much racism he thought there was among Latinos, especially toward Black people.

“There’s a lot more of it than Latinos like to acknowledge,” he answered. “It’s subtle. And it’s wrong.”

He sent me a link to a survey by the Pew Research Center that reported: “About half of Hispanics say they at least sometimes hear a Hispanic friend or family member make comments or jokes that might be considered racist or racially insensitive.”

Cedillo made one disturbing comment when contacted by The Times on Saturday night before the story was published: “I don’t have a recollection of this conversation,” he said.

If true, does that mean he hears such talk so often it’s not unusual enough to register in the memory bank?

To recap some things:

The hourlong conversation, which included then-President Ron Herrera of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, focused on how Latinos could wrestle more City Council seats from other racial and ethnic groups through redistricting. Much of the talk concerned how Martinez could increase her own power.


Martinez described the adopted Black toddler son of white Councilmember Mike Bonin as “parece changuito,” or “like a monkey.” And she called Bonin, who is gay, a “little bitch.”

A leaked recording of L.A. City Council members and a labor official includes racist remarks. Council President Nury Martinez apologizes; Councilmember Kevin de León expresses regret.

Oct. 9, 2022

De León compared Bonin’s handling of the child to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag — like some accessory.

Martinez mocked Indigenous Oaxacans as “little short dark people” and said “they’re ugly” in Spanish.

And L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón? “F— that guy,” she said. “He’s with the Blacks.”

Martinez’s own words condemn her and the three enablers more effectively than anyone else could.

They didn’t leave any room for escape from the political avalanche that swiftly followed.

Herrera quickly resigned his influential labor post. Martinez quit her council presidency Monday before being shoved out. She finally resigned her council seat Wednesday.

De León was still trying to hang on Wednesday afternoon. But it’s only a matter of time before he lets go of his seat too.


Cedillo must exit anyway in December because he was defeated in the June primary.

For De León, it’s an undoubtedly sad ending to a once-promising political career. He was the first Latino in 131 years to lead the California Senate. A very effective lawmaker, he pushed through some of the most significant legislation of the last decade, including strong gun controls and a “sanctuary state” law designed to protect immigrants without legal status from easy federal deportation.

Cedillo was largely responsible for providing undocumented immigrants with driver‘s licenses. It took years of persistence, taking on jittery governors and legislators.

“But no matter the past contributions from each of these figures, there’s no room for this kind of bigoted collusion among elected officials,” Adriana Sanchez-Ochoa, co-president of the California Latino Political Action Committee, told me.

If there’s any silver lining in all this, it’s that so many of these politicians’ Democratic allies — from President Biden on down — instantly agreed with Sanchez-Ochoa.

They told the culprits the racist talk was intolerable and to take a hike.