Column: Is Kevin de León toast?
City Councilmember Kevin de León is still not resigning.
It’s been 17 days since the recording of his explosive backroom conversation with two fellow councilmembers was leaked. It’s been two weeks since De León and others were driven out of the City Council chamber by an angry crowd decrying them as racist. Nine days since he was stripped of his committee assignments. Seven since he apologized but refused to step down from his $229,000-a-year job. Three since Gov. Gavin Newsom came out in favor of his resignation.
The pressure must be intense. Crowds massing outside the council chamber and protesters gathering at his house too. A call for his resignation from no less than the president of the United States — and he’s just a piddling local councilman. The council is considering a censure motion, and there have been murmurings about a recall effort.
But so far, De León is brazening it out.
Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.
“Frankly, it would be much easier to actually walk away,” he said Tuesday on Tavis Smiley’s KBLA 1580 talk show, the latest stop on a citywide apology-and-atonement tour. “But this is part of me asking for forgiveness … so we can move forward together and heal.”
Putting aside the question of what he should do, it’s pretty clear that De León believes that if he can stand firm in the maelstrom and remain on his feet, then after a few weeks or a few months, things could return to normal — tempers will cool, protesters will go home, new scandals will replace this one on the front pages, memories will fade.
Is he deluding himself? Bill Carrick, an L.A.-based political consultant who has worked in city, state and national politics for decades, thinks so.
“I just don’t see that there’s any way to survive this,” Carrick told me. “I think this is really too high-profile and too egregiously revolting to people. I don’t know how you hold on in those circumstances.”
But I wonder whether that’s necessarily the case.
The embattled politician had asked for permission to skip L.A. City Council meetings in the wake of the scandal.
Sure, there’s a perfectly good chance De León will throw in the towel tomorrow or in the next few days. (Council President Nury Martinez has already resigned and Councilmember Gil Cedillo’s term in office is about to end.)
But I’m also certain De León is looking back at other embattled public officials and wondering what’s to be lost by hanging on.
Al Franken, who resigned his U.S. Senate seat at the height of the #MeToo movement, is often held up as the classic example of a politician under fire who gave up too quickly. Two years later, Franken said he absolutely regretted quitting. Many Democrats now believe his behavior — including allegations that he groped and forcibly kissed women — didn’t merit the price he paid.
Others have successfully withstood scandals, such as Bill Clinton. He was impeached in 1998 for lying under oath and obstructing justice but did not resign, setting an example for Donald Trump, who didn’t resign even after being impeached twice during a single term in office. Neither was convicted by the Senate, and both served out their terms.
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.
Still others have tried to tough it out and failed, including New York’s pugnacious Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who insisted in the face of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct that he hadn’t done anything inappropriate. He held out for several months, but new allegations kept emerging, followed finally by a damning report from the state attorney general. Plus, Cuomo wasn’t well-liked and had few loyal allies. Eventually he was isolated, and in August 2021, he resigned.
Many officials who have been forced out of office in recent years were ousted as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct, which is not what De León is accused of. Nor is he facing criminal charges.
The usual playbook is for an accused politician to say absolutely and definitively that he or she will not resign — right up until the moment they do exactly that because the pressure has become intolerable.
And what constitutes intolerable? Here are some markers.
When it’s not just the other party but your own allies who are telling you to get out. When the allegations against you keep on coming. When you lie about what you’ve done and get caught. When an apology is insufficient to assuage your own constituents’ anger. When it becomes clear that, rightly or wrongly, you have lost the ability to lead.
Mike Murphy, a longtime consultant to Republican candidates, says that (putting aside what is the right thing to do) an embattled official deciding whether to stay or go must face a series of questions.
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.
“Is there legal jeopardy or is this just an issue of public relations? Is it getting worse or is it over? And you need to think about the calendar: When’s the next election and how long do you have to do repair work?” says Murphy. “Can you hang on to the tools you need to repair the damage — your money, your interest groups, your allies? Will they go neutral and give you room to rebuild or have they turned against you?”
Murphy says that if De León’s opponents mount a recall effort, he’ll be in a very difficult position.
Often officials facing scandals go through an agonizing figuring-out process, which may be what De León is doing. Ralph Northam, the Virginia governor accused in 2019 of posing for a yearbook picture in blackface, spent days in seclusion at home, according to the Washington Post, “as confidants delivered conflicting advice about whether he should resign or continue fighting to clear his name.” He held an “emotional” emergency meeting with staff to discuss options. He seemed likely to capitulate, but ultimately did not, and served out his term until earlier this year.
What De León did was bad. His comments on the leaked tape were substantially less offensive than the racist, nasty words uttered by Martinez, but they were pretty hard to explain away, as was the whole meeting, frankly. They appear to have turned much of the city against him. Staying on will be difficult and painful.
In my view, De León should resign. He’s permanently damaged. These are the big leagues and he got caught saying things he wouldn’t have dared utter in public.
But whether he will resign is another question.
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