Gil Cedillo, a champion for immigrant rights, imperiled by racist leak scandal

Councilmember Gil Cedillo
Councilmember Gil Cedillo at the Los Angeles City Council meeting Tuesday, where there were calls for his resignation.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

When four Latino leaders held a meeting to discuss Los Angeles’ City Council boundaries last year, one in the group acted at points as the political elder in the room, a now-infamous audio recording revealed.

City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, 68, stepped in to guide the discussion among himself, Councilmembers Nury Martinez and Kevin De León, and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor leader Ron Herrera, when the conversation strayed from the topic of the 15 City Council districts.

“Let me say this. So unlike 25 years ago, we now have a Mexican in charge of the [county Federation of Labor]. We have a Mexican in charge of the [City] Council,” Cedillo said. “We have more members on the council. We’re in a different spot now than we were 25 years ago. That thing for us is to exercise our power.”

During an October 2021 conversation with L.A. Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León and L.A.

Oct. 15, 2022


Cedillo’s description of the rise in Latino power matched his own path to City Hall. The Boyle Heights native, who went to high school with former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is one of the most well-known Latino politicians in California.

Now he faces widespread calls to resign and criticism for not speaking up, and for at points chiming in during the divisive and loaded conversation that has left allies feeling brokenhearted and opponents emboldened. Both Martinez and Herrera resigned this week after a furor over the racist and derogatory remarks.

Sara Harris, a co-founder of 1866 in Solano Canyon, a neighborhood group in Cedillo’s district, sent a letter to acting council President Mitch O’Farrell on Friday, demanding Cedillo step down.

The racist comments on a recording that rocked Los Angeles City Hall ensnared Councilman Kevin de León in controversy. The tape also revealed an undercurrent of ambition and grievance in his political career.

Oct. 14, 2022

A self-described “Mexican American Jew” who has a Black brother-in-law and a Black nephew, Harris said she was left shaking after hearing Martinez‘s suggestion of striking the young Black son of a white councilmember, and questioned why Cedillo didn’t shut down the talk.

“I’m listening to my own people talk that way about my own family,” she said. “It’s enraging.”

Communications consultant Helen Sanchez, who first worked with Cedillo in the late 1980s on then-presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’ campaign, said the lesson is that “we need to speak up when someone is saying terrible things, even if they are our friends.”

“I know Gilbert, I know he’s not a racist,” Sanchez said. “None of this can erase the work that he’s done. He’s been an advocate for marginalized communities for years and you can’t take that away no matter what he said.”

Cedillo hasn’t made any public comments since issuing an apology, and told The Times earlier this week that he didn’t make racist remarks or mock his colleagues.

“While I did not engage in the conversation in question, I was present at times during this meeting last year. It is my instinct to hold others accountable when they use derogatory or racially divisive language. Clearly, I should have intervened,” Cedillo said in the statement, which also noted that “remarks made about my colleague’s son were simply unacceptable.”


He declined an interview request Friday, with his spokesman Conrado TerrazasCross saying, “Councilmember Cedillo is at a place of reflection.”

What’s next for the councilmember is unclear. When he walked onto the council floor Tuesday, the first day the body convened since the explosive audio was leaked, he was met with shouts of “Resign, Gil!” from the audience.

Cedillo was already scheduled to step down Dec. 11 after community activist Eunisses Hernandez won the June primary in District 1. He could remain on the City Council until Dec. 11 without showing up, under rules that allow councilmembers to have absences for up to 60 days.

O’Farrell canceled Friday’s meeting and again called on Cedillo and De León to resign.

Solano Canyon’s Harris said she was already frustrated with Cedillo’s representation of the district, and now is angry the council meeting was canceled. She wants the city to take action on the troubled Animal Services department. “Privileged powerful people stopping business from being conducted at City Hall is a gut punch,” Harris said.

In the conversation about redistricting — which took place in October 2021 at the L.A. County Federation of Labor — the group discussed maintaining Latino political power while also ensuring they and their colleagues would have districts that help them win reelection.

Cedillo can be heard discussing his frustration with parts of his district.

He noted that he doesn’t “need” Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Lincoln Heights — referencing Eastside neighborhoods that have grown increasingly gentrified — and characterized his own base as Westlake and Pico-Union. “I have poor people,” he told Martinez.

Earlier, the comments in the roughly hourlong audio veered into divisive and racist remarks. Martinez described Councilmember Mike Bonin’s son as “Parece changuito,” or “like a monkey,” and, in describing his behavior at a public event, said the boy deserved a “beatdown.”

At one point in that section of the recording, Cedillo appeared to say that the boy needs a “pinch.”

Later, when Martinez employed stereotypes long used against Oaxacans in Mexico and in the United States, saying she sees a lot of “little short dark people” in Koreatown, Cedillo chimed in and stated, “Puro Oaxacans. Puro Oaxacan Korean. Not even like Kevin — little ones.”

Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University, when asked specifically about Cedillo’s comments, said, “It’s not appropriate to discuss any group by their physical traits.”

Guerra decried the racism in the conversation and lack of leadership shown in the group, and added: “I have never heard [Cedillo] utter a single racist or anti-Black comment in my entire life.”

Guerra has known Cedillo for more than 20 years, and watched as labor and immigrant rights groups propelled Cedillo to the state Assembly in 1997, a campaign in which his allies tapped into anger over Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s anti-immigrant message.

The county Federation of Labor identified new Latino voters, sending them mailers that Cedillo was “the Democrat that Pete Wilson feared most.”

Amid loud calls for Councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo to resign, the L.A. City Council will not meet on Friday.

Oct. 13, 2022

At the state level, Cedillo was nicknamed “One Bill Gil” for his tenacious — and at times seemingly quixotic — quest to pass legislation allowing immigrants who are in the country without authorization to obtain driver’s licenses.

A version of the bill was finally signed into law after Cedillo was termed out of office. But the transformative policy, which has since been replicated by a wave of other states, remains a key part of his legacy.

After winning a L.A. City Council seat in 2013, Cedillo won reelection in 2017 in a race that saw his opponent, Joe Bray-Ali, undone for making incendiary comments on a website with racist content.

Hernandez’s win in June signaled the growing clout of progressives in L.A., but also vocal frustration among some in Cedillo’s district that he hadn’t done enough on housing. The population of District 1 is nearly two-thirds Latino, but some areas have seen wealthier, white residents move in.

Rifts and alliances on the City Council are common, and Bonin endorsed Hernandez in the race. Bonin and Cedillo also had tensions in previous years over policy differences regarding bike lanes and homelessness.

Cedillo texted Bonin the statement that he released Sunday night after The Times reported on the leaked audio. Cedillo didn’t say anything else in the text, said David Graham-Caso, Bonin’s deputy chief of staff.

Cedillo attempted to speak to Bonin on the City Council floor Tuesday, but Graham-Caso advised Cedillo that an apology wasn’t appropriate in front of the television cameras.

Times staff writer Julia Wick contributed to this report.