Column: Kevin de León didn’t attend his own World Cup party. He still came out a winner
The sun had yet to rise when Cesar Augusto Espinoza walked into Pershing Square just after 6 Sunday morning, but the plaza was already buzzing. Workers were getting ready for the big game.
Tech staff did mic checks and tweaked the television settings on a big screen. Vendors set up booths to sell margaritas and coffee. A phalanx of security, including seven Los Angeles Police Department officers, roamed the premises. City workers barked orders into their walkie-talkies.
The FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and France? Sure. Pershing Square was going to air it starting at 7 a.m. But everyone there was also setting up for a rematch between Kevin de León and his antagonistes.
A week earlier, the Los Angeles council member — whose district includes downtown — made national news after video of him going after an activist who had filmed the longtime politico during a Christmas toy giveaway in Lincoln Heights went viral. Critics — who had harangued De León all year over his policies on homelessness — had ratcheted up their protests in the wake of an explosive leaked audiotape that saw the council member ridicule Black political power and join in with chuckles or jabs as others said nasty things about basically everyone.
De León went on CNN and Telemundo after the Lincoln Heights fiasco to accuse his haters of bullying and vowed again to never resign; protesters promised to, well, protest, anywhere and everywhere he appeared as long as he stayed in office. So an air of uncertainty hung over Pershing Square as the dark skies gave way to dawn. Would activists show up? Would De León, who co-sponsored the watch party in his latest attempt to leave the past behind by holding public events for constituents? Who would get the better of it?
“He has to stay — he does a lot of good work,” said the 57-year-old Espinoza, sitting near a heater. I reminded the Ecuadorean immigrant about De León’s role in the racist tape scandal.
“This is a city with a lot of ethnicities,” he replied. “If he’s going to stay with that [racist] attitude, then he should leave. But there’s a game today. That’s a conversation for another day!”
You know how they say soccer is more than just a sport? What went on at Pershing Square turned into a metaphor for l’affair De León. Like Argentina soccer star Lionel Messi, the council member was a working-class kid who scrapped his way to the heights of his profession yet had never won on the biggest stage (De León’s mayoral and U.S. Senate bids flopped, and a World Cup win had eluded Messi). Now, De León and Messi were in the fight of their lives for their respective legacies.
Yesterday, both set themselves up to win.
Messi scored the first goal for Argentina and helped to set up the second to put his country up 2-0 against France by the end of the first half. More than 100 people cheered the teams on in Pershing Square, in a crowd that was majority Latino but multicultural and leaned millennial. On each side of the massive screen that broadcast the Telemundo feed were banners with Kevin de León’s name on the top and bottom. Security stood at all possible entrances.
No De León, no protesters. Nothing like a fiesta to wash away one’s political sins. No one cared that De León wasn’t there. Smiles about the soccer match turn to sighs about L.A.’s political reality every time I asked fans how they felt attending an event with his imprimatur on it.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” said Brian Hernandez, who attended with his friends and wore a USA men’s soccer team jersey. The 30-year-old moved away from De León’s district, “so he isn’t my council member anymore, but I wish he still was.”
Hernandez felt De León had apologized for words that “everyone talks ... behind closed doors.” He understood people were still angry at the politician, but “he’s done so much for the community. Shouldn’t that count for something?”
A 25-year-old downtown resident who gave her name as Jane Smith said friends of hers didn’t come because they were afraid of the threat of protesters. She declined to give her opinion on De León but praised all the security present. “We all feel safe here.”
At halftime, a DJ gave De León a shout-out for helping to make the event happen — except the DJ didn’t even say the council member’s name, instead tossing out an acronym — CM KDL — with the speed of an auctioneer, avoiding a reaction. Soon after, South Central-raised hip-hop artist Feefa performed some live tracks, urging the apathetic crowd to “Make some noise!” — probably the last time you’ll hear those words at a De León event.
Songs began to pop up that offered an unwittingly ironic soundtrack to the De León saga. A remix of “Que Nadie Sepa Mi Sufrir” (“Let No One Know My Suffering.”) The Daddy Yankee jam “Yo Voy” (“I Go”), about a man done in by his own weaknesses.
Feefa ended his short gig, and the World Cup final returned. Still no De León or his progressive pals.
France mounted a furious comeback, tying things up at 2-2. DJ Rich Money was working the event as part of Sueño, an arts collective in charge of the morning’s music. They were there the previous weekend at Pershing Square, when De León’s office held his second annual Winter Wonderland festival around Pershing Square’s seasonal skating rink.
“There was a Santa Claus, there was snow, there was gifts,” said the 31-year-old Money, an East Hollywood resident. “We just want to build bridges.”
When I asked about De León, he offered a wearied grin.
“It’s a tough subject. Everyone has an opinion. He’s done a lot of good. They [activists] are going to protest regardless of what he does.”
In the midst of this forgive-me farce, De León reiterated that, nope, he’s going to stay in his seat.
Then finally, some boos from the crowd. Was there a De León sighting? Did critics unfurl a banner or begin a chant?
No. The screen flashed a DirecTV message asking if the broadcast should reset now or later. A premonition of a recall? If so, it failed — the crowd began to scream for the latter option and cheered when the techs chose to reset everything later.
Argentina versus France was an instant classic — Messi carried his squad to victory and sealed his reputation as an all-time great. Meanwhile, another chapter of De León against his opponents fizzled. Each side was a no-show — a De León staffer told me her boss was at another event in Boyle Heights. LAPD and private security ended up spending the four hours of the event as spectators, not sentries.
For the crowd that enjoyed the Pershing Square party, the council member deserved his own trophy.
“All of this is wonderful,” Lauryn Park said. The World Cup crowd was thinning out, but a new wave of folks came. Some walked their dogs; others looked on at the game of futsal that Sueño members joined.
“Why would you want to get rid of someone who brings this to his district?” the 36-year-old continued. “Everyone makes mistakes. He apologized, so let’s move on.”
Later that afternoon, De León’s team posted a reel on his Instagram page of happy, cheering fans from his event. They were cheering on Messi — but in the political World Cup De León currently faces, the adoration might as well have been for him.
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