Column: De León embodied the American dream. After racist audio leak, he’s living a political nightmare

Then-mayoral candidate Kevin de Leon gestures at a Memorial Day celebration.
Then-mayoral candidate Kevin de León takes part in the 75th annual Memorial Day celebration at Cinco Puntos Mexican American War Memorial in Boyle Heights on May 30.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Back when he led the state Senate, currently disgraced Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León acknowledged growing up with “a chip on my shoulder,” thinking “I wasn’t good enough, maybe.”

That chip seemed evident in the hateful, racist conversation secretly recorded among De León and two other councilmembers that shocked the city and much of America.

The chip was formed as De León was raised in poverty by a single mother who immigrated to California illegally from Guatemala. His mom cleaned wealthy people’s houses in San Diego. He often tagged along on the bus with her to work. They and his two older half-sisters lived in a basement. The bathroom was up a flight of outside stairs.

All that created the chip, along with discrimination against Latinos, including himself.

Yet, through intensity and determination, De León slowly began living the American dream.

De León started his career working at an immigration center assisting people migrating here illegally. In 1994, he helped organize a massive downtown L.A. march against Proposition 187, the divisive ballot initiative that attempted to deny public services to immigrants without legal status. It passed overwhelmingly but was ruled unconstitutional.


He became a labor organizer for the California Teachers Assn. and a campaign manager for Fabian Núñez, who later became Assembly speaker. They became close friends — one of the seemingly few long-lasting, close friendships De León has developed.

With Núñez’s help, De León won an Assembly seat in 2006, beating Christine Chavez, the granddaughter of legendary farmworker union leader Cesar Chavez. He became a highly effective lawmaker but slung elbows that didn’t win friends. Ambitious and somewhat grating, De León was defeated in a bid for speaker.

But in 2014, De León was elected by his colleagues to lead the Senate — the first Latino president pro tem in 131 years.

That chip soon showed. De León threw a lavish “inauguration” at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. — complete with a color guard, mariachis and political VIPs — funded by special interests that lobby Sacramento. He became incensed when I and another Times writer pointed out this was far more lavish than how previous legislators had celebrated their ascension to leadership. Those events usually involved a low-budget Sacramento reception and dinner among family, friends and allies.

The embattled Los Angeles City Council member insists that he won’t quit. But that probably won’t salvage his political career or bode well for his future.

Oct. 19, 2022

De León thought he was being picked on because he is Latino. Although a Senate leader is extremely powerful, De León failed to grasp that being chosen by 40 colleagues doesn’t rise to the level of being elected governor or even, say, to an L.A. supervisorial seat representing roughly 2 million people.


De León was still holding that resentment during the infamous secretly recorded conversation reported by The Times this month.

When then-council President Nury Martinez mentioned that it was recently the anniversary of his selection as Senate leader, he remarked: “That swearing-in ceremony, I got s— on all over for that…. Because we as Latinos — whether you’re labor or you’re in the political space — we’re not supposed to fill those positions.”

But of the last nine Assembly speakers over the last 25 years, five have been Latino. Two others have been Black Angelenos. Two have been white.

De León’s bitter resentment over racism and discrimination surfaced in other ways during the conversation.

The biggest threat to Latinos, he said, was not “those crazies in Orange County who are pro-Trump. It’s the white liberals. It’s the L.A. Times.”

He called Mike Bonin, who is white, the council’s “fourth Black member” because he “won’t f—ing ever say peep about Latinos.”

Bonin’s adopted Black son was described by De León as a prop similar to a designer handbag. His hateful comment came after Martinez called the toddler a “little monkey” in Spanish and said Bonin, who is gay, was a “little bitch.”

De León’s goal in the meeting a year ago was to plot how redistricting of the council seats then underway could consolidate “Latino strength for the foreseeable future.”

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

It was Martinez who spewed the most racist and hateful talk. But De León and Councilmember Gil Cedillo should have told her to clam it — that her gutter talk was unacceptable.

She was the powerful council president and, following human nature and long-believed political pragmatism, De León and Cedillo were going along to get along, I figure. Núñez agrees.

“When you have the president of the City Council leading a conversation like that, the others feel they should go along,” Núñez told me. “That changes the dynamic. The biggest mistake Kevin and Gil made was in not stopping her as soon as she made the remark about the child.

“Now they’re guilty by association. And listen, they said some things they shouldn’t have said.”

It’s the guilt by association that De León is burning inside about, according to one insider, who asked not to be identified. De León doesn’t believe he deserves to be lumped in with Martinez.

His comments — although he admits inappropriate — were mostly garden-variety political fare.

“I’ve been in rooms where other politicians said the same things or worse,” a top legislative aide told me anonymously. “People say things that make me cringe.”

Despite political and public pressure to resign, De León declared in a television interview Wednesday with “Noticiero Univision” that he won’t.

One reason, the insider told me, is that De León believes that if he resigned, his involvement in the deplorable meeting would be forever equated with Martinez. He wants the council and the public to distinguish between the two.

A very proud man, he also deeply resents others — especially political rivals — trying to muscle him into surrender.

If the council really wants him out, they should try using some old-fashioned negotiating skills — now seemingly out of vogue — and agree on an easy path.

Meanwhile, De León, 55, has descended from the American dream to living a nightmare.