Column: Kevin de León says he’s sorry but won’t resign. Kevin, stop gaslighting L.A.

A smiling man is surrounded by people outdoors.
Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León at the grand opening of his campaign headquarters for his unsuccessful mayoral bid on March 12.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

After a week and a half of silence, Kevin de León emerged Wednesday afternoon to let the world know he is really, truly, honestly sorry for what he said, and didn’t say, on the racist recording that has rocked Los Angeles.

The embattled councilmember appeared on KCBS-TV to repeat again and again that he “failed” to stop one colleague, Nury Martinez, from taking bigoted shots at a range of Angelenos, and another, Gil Cedillo, from plotting to take over seats held by Black politicians.

“I failed in that moment in time to step up and shut that meeting down,” De León told reporter Tom Wait. He asked for forgiveness “from my people, my community for the harm caused by the painful words” uttered on the tape.


Also up: an interview in Spanish with Univision anchor León Krauze, who flew out from the network’s home base in Florida. Lighted in funereal shadows, De León said he felt “horrible” six times about what Martinez, Cedillo and former Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera had said about Black people, Jews, Armenians, Oaxacans and other councilmembers. When Krauze pressed De León on why he stayed quiet, the councilmember responded in Spanglish, “Estaba yo en shock, completamente shock.”

De León punctuated his afternoon of apologies with a letter to newly appointed L.A. City Council President Paul Krekorian, writing with “a shame deeper than I have ever known and from a place of deep humility.” The only thing that De León said gave comfort during his hard times was “a community of angels” who came to him with encouraging words “I feel I hardly deserve.”

It would’ve been a good exercise in contrition — if any of it was real.

L.A. City Councilmember Kevin De León says he won’t resign following calls for him to step down after the leak of an audio conversation in which racist and disparaging comments were made.

Oct. 19, 2022

Because, you see, in the midst of this forgive-me farce, De León reiterated that, nope, he’s going to stay in his seat despite nearly the entire Democratic establishment, from fellow councilmembers to U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) to even President Biden, asking for his resignation.

Martinez, who uttered the most offensive comments, has resigned, while Cedillo remains in office.

To Krekorian, De León wrote that resigning would be “only a solution that benefits me — not the people who elected me to represent them.”

To KCBS, he said he wanted to “help heal the wounds that have existed for so many years, if not decades.”


Meanwhile, he told Krauze that resigning wouldn’t help anyone in his working-class district “because there’s still a lot of work ahead” with “COVID, unemployment, the threat of evictions and the humanitarian crisis of homelessness.”

His stance was classic Kevin: self-serving, messianic and calculating.

After losing a longshot bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Kevin de León is is far from an underdog in his race for an L.A. City Council seat.

Feb. 13, 2020

He’s leaning on his reputation as a Latino political giant — longtime immigrant rights and labor activist, former assemblymember and head of the California Senate — in betting that some will cool their ire because they need someone who knows how to get things done for Latinos. He’s banking that his overwhelmingly Latino constituents are far enough removed from City Hall to not care much about the controversy.

And he thinks that if he casts stones at Martinez and Cedillo, the public will overlook his sins.

I’ve met Kevin a couple of times over the years and find him smarter than most. He’s funny, hardworking and loyal. That’s why I don’t underestimate his strategy — in fact, it’s slowly unspooling as I write.

A group of Latino men showed up outside De León’s house this week demanding that Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles protesters “give him his space.” Other supporters plan a rally this Saturday in East Los Angeles, which isn’t in De León’s district — but no matter. “Sadly,” a Facebook posting advertising the event reads, “political opposition has created a media circus to reduce the number of Latino councilmen which will reduce the services going to our community.”

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

Friends who have long worked with De León on many of his signature causes — climate change, turning California into a sanctuary state for immigrants, gun control, but especially Latino representation in California’s corridors of power — keep calling me to argue that to lose him now would be an incalculable blow at a time when Latinos can least afford it. Some have even ridiculously described what has happened to him, Martinez and Cedillo as little better than an execution.

My response, besides slapping down the comparison, is to point out that this episode has illuminated the worst of De León’s tendencies, which he shares with another embattled Latino elected official, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

The massive chips on their shoulders constantly sink their ambition — and put the people they serve at risk.

In the grand scheme of the tape, De León didn’t say the worst things. He did call Councilmember Mike Bonin the “fourth Black councilmember” who “won’t f—ing ever say peep about Latinos. He’ll never say a f—ing word about us.”

He also compared Black political power to the Wizard of Oz — the idea that it’s not all it’s made out to be. And he told both KCBS and Univision that when he compared Bonin’s Black son to a Louis Vuitton handbag, it was actually meant as a jab against Martinez’s taste for luxury goods — a face-saving low blow against a former ally.

No, what struck me the most about De León is how aggrieved he is.

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.

May 8, 2023

The leaked tape caught him whining about how people criticized him for holding a party at Walt Disney Concert Hall to mark his ascension as Senate president pro tem “because we as Latinos — whether you’re labor or you’re in the political space — we’re not supposed to fill those positions.” White people would have been OK with the party if he’d had it at El Pueblo, Olvera Street, Roosevelt High or Pacoima, he said.

He mentioned white people six times, from “little white lady” to “white people will cut you in a heartbeat” and the “white liberal world.”

He claimed that when white politicians get caught in corruption, “they figure out some s—.” (Someone tell that to Mitch Englander.)

It’s a side of De León I’ve noticed from the start — one I always felt was beneath his talents.

As in his other campaigns, De León has leaned heavily on his personal story, hoping that voters will relate to someone who has struggled as they have.

May 30, 2022

For the record:

11:18 a.m. Oct. 20, 2022An earlier version of this column said The Times endorsed Proposition 187. The Times endorsed Pete Wilson, while noting that the governor was “utterly, totally, hopelessly wrong” for supporting Proposition 187. In a separate editorial, The Times opposed Proposition 187.

When I interviewed him for my 2019 podcast on Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-immigrant ballot initiative that inspired a generation of Latino activists like De León to run for office, one of the first things he said was how racist The Times had been for endorsing Gov. Pete Wilson, who supported the measure. I replied that while I agreed that the paper was terribly wrong, The Times of today was vastly different.

He moved on.

During a mayoral candidate debate on homelessness this month co-hosted by The Times and KCRW-FM, De León punted on a difficult question by my co-moderator Anna Scott by playing the dumb Latino immigrant. “No hablo ingles,” he said — I don’t speak English.

When I responded in Spanish to tell him to, well, respond in Spanish, we all laughed — but he still didn’t answer the question.

This is not the idealistic son of a housekeeper from Guatemala who accomplished so much in his career. This is a control-hungry pol who believes his own hype — he even talked about himself in the third person to KCBS.

Is this really what Los Angeles needs right now? Is this really the best that Latinos can elect? What De León is doing isn’t an example in leadership — it’s a lesson in how to gaslight a city.

The 55-year-old De León plans to serve out his term, which ends in 2024, and most likely run again as he plots another go at higher office, after unsuccessful bids for U.S. Senate in 2018 and L.A. mayor this year. Outside of a recall, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

So I’ll leave him with what he told me in 2019 about how the California Republican Party was wrong to gamble its political future on Proposition 187. The measure passed convincingly but was later invalidated and ultimately destroyed the party.

“It was short-term delirium for long-term, in perpetuity, pain,” De León said. “And I tell my Republican colleagues, ‘If I can give you some free advice, take it for what it’s worth. I think it’s good advice: This doesn’t end up well for you.’ ”

Kevin, are you listening to yourself?