Column: What the L.A. City Councilmembers’ recording says about the pursuit of power

President Trump on a stage with a sign that says "Latinos for Trump"
One-third of Latino voters backed President Trump in 2020, a show of political power and desperation.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

So … this is the room where it happens. Not nearly as attractive as Aaron Burr described it in “Hamilton.” In fact — judging from the leaked audio from a 2021 meeting among Los Angeles City Council members Gil Cedillo, Kevin de León and Nury Martinez — the room where it happens is probably the ugliest place in politics.

But it can also be quite revealing. Here’s where things get really uncomfortable. The meeting was about power. The offensive language displays these politicians’ thoughts about who they wanted to take power from.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

It was Martinez who called Oaxacans “ugly,” referred to her out gay colleague Mike Bonin as a “bitch” and described Bonin’s Black son as a “monkey” — and yet the fact that those comments went unchallenged says a lot about everyone else in the room. It’s hard to imagine her saying these things unless Cedillo and De León provided the environment in which such sentiments seemed OK.

Martinez resigned as president of the council on Monday and took a leave of absence on Tuesday. All three council members are under pressure to resign from office.

L.A. City Councilmember Nury Martinez is taking a leave of absence amid outrage over her racist comments heard on a leaked audio recording.

Oct. 11, 2022


While the offensiveness of the conversation commands the headlines, the reason the group met in the first place warrants more attention. They had gathered at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor with Ron Herrera, who was president of the federation until he resigned this week. Most of the conversation was about the maps proposed by the city’s redistricting commission and the need to protect heavily Latino districts from losing economic assets in the once-a-decade process.

“What kind of districts are you trying to create?” Martinez said in frustration. “Because you’re taking away our assets. You’re just going to create poor Latino districts with nothing.”

The leaked audio showed just how toxic L.A.’s political leadership has become.

Oct. 10, 2022

This meeting was about politicians and communities fighting for political power. Democratic leaders, both locally and nationally, know this is not a new topic.

Martinez, Cedillo and De León are a lot of things, including Democrats. Anger over the inequitable power structure within the party is not unique to them. Feels like a much larger conversation needs to happen, beyond calls for the councilmembers’ resignations and beyond Gov. Gavin Newsom’s remarks that “words matter, and racist language can do real harm.”

Describing an Armenian politico by his eyebrows was crass, but it was a mild insult compared to the devastating racism spewed by Nury Martinez.

Oct. 11, 2022

This week the Washington Post reminded national Democrats of the erosion of Latino support in Florida, warning it could happen in other states, like Texas. Sure, Democrats can still win the White House in 2024 without those two states, but NBC reported last week that Democrats in Nevada are concerned that Latinos may stay home on Nov. 8, unmotivated to show up despite the importance of the election. Last month the Arizona Republic reported a survey in which 42% of Latinos in Arizona said neither party has contacted them about the midterm election. It makes no sense. Nearly a third of the state’s population is Latino.


Maybe by itself the leaked audio in Los Angeles would be a one-off scandal. But in this national context, the conversation in the largest city in the biggest blue state signifies something more. We saw that in 2020, when President Trump won greater support from Latino voters than he had in 2016. Regardless of his remarks, his policies or Democrats’ characterizations of him, 1 in 3 Latino voters supported Trump nationwide. That’s not even a take. That’s just what happened.

Something else tangible connected with people in a way the culture war and liberal immigration policies didn’t. I would dare say those other things were the economy, COVID and public safety. A growing number of Latino Americans believed Trump was better suited to address those things. I wonder if Democrats understand all of the reasons why.

Even if all three councilmembers resigned — as they should — the
issue that inspired their meeting won’t go away. They were pushing for more political power for Latinos — and that’s understandable.

As reported by The Times, “Latino residents make up roughly half of L.A.’s population but represent less than a third of the council’s 15 districts.” The disparity in representation is even wider in Washington. The nation is about 19% Latino, but only about 7% of representatives are members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Only six senators are Latino.

It is stunning to hear a L.A. City Council leader make bigoted comments about people with strong Indigenous roots. But in some ways, it’s not shocking.

Oct. 11, 2022

What are some Latino leaders willing to do about it? In the case of Martinez and company, whatever they feel is necessary, including gerrymander. Just like every voting bloc and all other politicians.

That’s what that leaked audio represents. In the room where it happens, motives are discussed, alliances are formed, deals made. Backroom dealings are not always as vulgar and offensive as the meeting Martinez led, but they are always about getting needs met.

That’s the most important takeaway for the city, and for the Democratic Party.

Not just the words but the issues behind them.


VIDEO | 04:02
LA Times Today: City council members’ recording isn’t just offensive. It’s illuminating (Commentary)

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.