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Voters turn sharply against Kevin de León, favor recall, poll finds

Councilmember Kevin de León seen in profile, leaning his chin against his right hand, which is holding a blue pen.
Councilmember Kevin de León at Los Angeles City Council meeting on Wednesday.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
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Voters in Councilman Kevin de León’s district have little confidence in him, and as a scandal involving racist comments continues to dog him, a majority want him to resign, a new Los Angeles Times poll shows.

The poll paints a grim political picture for De León, the former state legislator and once-rising Democratic star who has adamantly refused to step down, despite a chorus of calls to go that has reached from protesters at City Council meetings to President Biden.

After a nearly two-month absence from the council, De León returned last month, hoping to repair his reputation and promising to fight for constituents in his Latino, working-class district.

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But voters are unsympathetic. By a wide margin, voters said De León puts his own political self-interest ahead of the people he represents. Even reliable supporters who voted for him in the past have lost faith, the poll found.

Only 23% of the voters surveyed approved of the job De León is doing, compared with 48% who disapproved, the poll found. Just over half think he should resign, compared with fewer than a quarter who want him to stay in office and 18% who were undecided; 9% did not answer the question.

If a recall were to qualify for the ballot — an effort to qualify one is currently circulating petitions — 58% would support recalling him from office, compared with 25% who would be opposed and 17% undecided, the survey found.

The poll of 400 registered voters in Council District 14 was conducted Jan. 10-16. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

De León’s political collapse began in the fall when a recording surfaced of him and two other Latino council members in a private meeting using racist insults as they plotted to reshape district maps.

The recording upended City Hall and sparked boisterous protests that led to the resignation of City Council president Nury Martinez and Los Angeles Labor Federation chief Ron Herrera, who also took part in the meeting. Councilman Gil Cedillo, the third council member involved, has since left office, leaving De León as the only official still serving.

De León has pleaded for forgiveness for his words and argues he does a good job representing his constituents, many of whom are undocumented and Spanish-speaking.

Yet voters across lines of race, ethnicity and geography showed little support for him in his Eastside district, which stretches from downtown Los Angeles and Boyle Heights to the gentrifying neighborhoods of Highland Park and Eagle Rock in the north. It also encompasses El Sereno and Lincoln Heights.

Among Latino voters, almost half said that having De León on the council is “now more negative than positive for the Latino community” compared with about three in 10 who said it is “still more positive than negative.”

“It’s pretty clear,” said Drew Lieberman, a pollster at Strategies 360, a national research firm with experience polling in Los Angeles that conducted the survey for The Times. “It’s hard to reach any conclusion other than that the last few months have been pretty difficult period for Kevin de León and frankly, it constitutes a disqualifying set of events for him” in voters’ eyes, Lieberman said.

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“Across demographics, across ideology in this poll, these voters have soured on him, and they’re just sort of ready for him to go.”

Latino voters, non-college-educated voters and younger voters were less likely than white and college-educated voters to view De León negatively, but he failed to get majority support from any major demographic group, the poll found.

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Nearly two-thirds of voters said they were paying very or somewhat close attention to news about the recording and its fallout, and it has clearly influenced their thinking. Among those who said they’ve been following coverage at least somewhat closely, two-thirds think De León should resign, and seven in 10 think he should be recalled. Those who haven’t been following closely are much more likely to say they’re undecided.

Westley Garcia-Encines, 34, a downtown Los Angeles resident who was among the poll respondents who agreed to a follow-up interview, said De León should have resigned the moment the audio became public.

In the recording, De León accused fellow Councilmember Mike Bonin of using his Black son as an accessory like a designer handbag. He also compared Black political power in Los Angeles to the Wizard of Oz.

“Staying to work through the hurt that he has caused is not the answer,” Garcia-Encines said. “It seems to me that it’s more about his ego at this point because his community has been calling him to step down.”

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Garcia-Encines, who supported De León when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2018 and for the council, isn’t alone in that sentiment. When given a list of five attributes and asked whether each described De León well, a majority of respondents said he put his self-interest ahead of those he represents. Just under a third of voters said he was effective and got things done.

Not all voters in the district have abandoned De León. He retains the support of about two in 10 voters, a share that rises to about three in 10 among Latinos.

Vivian Vasquez, a poll respondent who lives in El Sereno, is one who believes De León should finish out his term.

While she was disappointed with what the council members were caught on tape saying, she said De León had not caused direct harm to the people he represents.

“I feel he’s at least doing his job in leading the group he was elected to lead,” said Vasquez, 41.

“When I look at it in the grand scheme of the needs of the world, there’s no harm in letting him stay and finish out his term and focus on the bigger needs of our society,” Vasquez added.

She also said she disliked the in-your-face style of protesters who have demanded De León’s resignation, forcing several council sessions to all but shut down.

Sentiment against the protests was widespread among older voters. About half of voters 50 and older said the protests have “gone too far,” compared with just over a third who say they have “generally been fair and peaceful.” By contrast, voters younger than 50 said by more than 3-1 that the protests were fair and peaceful.

Unhappiness with the protests did not appear to have translated into support for De León, however: Older voters were more likely than younger ones to say De León should resign, primarily because younger voters were more likely to say they were undecided.

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While the protests have died down recently, De León’s political future is unclear. He remains politically isolated as the recall effort continues. In December, he got into a physical altercation with a protester during a toy giveaway.

If a recall made it onto the ballot, a majority of Latino voters would vote him out as would an even larger share of white voters, the poll found. Latinos make up about half of the district’s voters, with whites making up about a quarter. Other racial groups make up the remaining quarter but were too small a part of the sample to be separately analyzed.

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Across racial and ethnic lines, only 20% of voters said they viewed De León favorably, with nearly half indicating that recent news has dimmed their view of him.

De León gets more support among moderates and conservatives than among liberals, who make up about half of the district’s voters. Even among those smaller groups, however, more say he should resign than stay.

Voters’ opinions about De León were significantly more negative than their view of other political figures. Voters in the heavily Democratic district have a much more optimistic view of newly installed Mayor Karen Bass, for example, who served in the state Assembly with De León earlier in their careers.

A large majority of the district’s voters, 54%-14%, have a favorable view of Bass, with the rest undecided or saying they don’t know enough to have an opinion. Voters were split 35%-35% in their opinion of the City Council, where De León’s colleagues are attempting to limit his power.

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De León represents some of the poorest parts of the city with a large immigrant population and high rates of renters. About a quarter-million people live in the district.

He was elected in 2020, winning the primary that year with about 52% of the vote. Now, however, voters who said they cast ballots for him in that election divide closely on whether he should stay or go, with 43% saying he should resign, 38% saying he should stay and the rest uncertain. Voters who did not back him that year overwhelmingly think he should resign.

One group among whom De León fares especially badly is women with college degrees, who are 3-1 in favor of his resigning and in favor of a recall. And while voters across the district think he should resign or be recalled, the majority is largest in the northern parts of the district, which has the largest share of college-educated voters.

Marita Forney, an educator who lives with her wife, Evangeline Griego, in Eagle Rock, strongly disapproves of De León.

Forney, who is white, voted for De León, but she’s been bothered by his air of arrogance and his suggestion that he is his district’s only shot at representation.

“There’s definitely more than one or 10 or 100 people who are qualified or capable,” Forney said, adding, “I’m sure there are sixth-graders in school in the district who can do a better job of representing us right now.”

De León’s presence is also polarizing, she said, pitting his critics against Latinos in the district who have previously supported him.

Forney’s wife, Griego, said she’s found his office to be unresponsive to her concerns about the homelessness crisis and street cleanliness.

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“Even before all of this, he was just not a very good council member,” Griego said. But she found his participation in the conversation that was leaked “deplorable” and believes he should resign.

“This idea he keeps saying he’s there to serve his constituents — I don’t know what constituents he says he’s serving, but he’s not serving me, he’s not serving my neighbors,” Griego said.

The poll of registered voters in Council District 14 was conducted in English and Spanish by calls to cellphones, land lines and SMS to web interviews. A more complete description of the methodology, as well as the full questionnaire and top-line results, are available on the Strategies 360 website.

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