Column: Councilmembers caused this rift. Other councilmembers can minimize the damage
Kevin de León doesn’t have to remain the center of everyone’s attention.
The councilmember usurped center stage in L.A. politics by showing up to council meetings late last year despite widespread calls for his resignation after the leak of a conversation filled with bigoted remarks. Of the individuals on the recording, he’s the last councilmember standing, following the resignation of Nury Martinez and the end of Gil Cedillo’s term.
Jean Guerrero is the author, most recently, of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”
As the City Council meets for the first time in 2023 on Tuesday, it’s imperative that De León’s three Latino colleagues prevent him from being the center of the City Council’s story any longer. Monica Rodriguez and recently elected Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martinez are all already taking crucial steps in that direction.
The younger progressives, Hernandez and Soto-Martinez, repeatedly walked out of the Dec. 13 meeting to shame De León for refusing to resign. They communicated that Latino leaders do not condone anti-Blackness, a needed contrast to some of the Black-vs.-Latino tensions that De León has fueled.
“When the Latino community leads in this fight, it takes away all credibility from [De León],” Soto-Martinez told me, adding that growing up in South-Central informed his decision. “I’ve seen how everyone loses when entrenched power brokers pit Black and brown communities against each other.”
But De León’s insistence on continuing to attend council meetings makes their walk-outs unsustainable.
“We need to stop letting one person take up the entire space and energy of the government that’s supposed to be serving 4 million people,” Hernandez told me.
She told me she’s been pondering the question: “How do I take up space in that meeting when he shows up?” Instead of personnel drama, Hernandez wants council members to attend to the needs of low-income, Indigenous, Black, LGBTQ and other Angelenos who have long been overlooked by the city.
To restore confidence in city government, she has been meeting with the communities who were insulted in the recording to hear their concerns. For example, Oaxacan Angelenos told her they want more translation services and training against anti-Indigenous sentiments among city leaders.
There’s another Latina leader who’s been advocating on behalf of neglected communities: Rodriguez, the only Latinx incumbent on the council who didn’t participate in the racist conversation. She’s been one of the most vocal critics of a motion aimed at De León that would affect his constituents as collateral damage.
The motion was presented by Councilmembers Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Paul Krekorian and Mike Bonin and could limit De León’s power to use discretionary funds to help his district, such as for food giveaways.
“It’s one thing to admonish a member for his or her behavior, utilizing censure,” Rodriguez wrote on Dec. 8 in a letter to Krekorian and others about the motion. “Anything that goes beyond this is anti-democratic, punishing constituents, local businesses, and community organizations that reside in these districts.”
Rodriguez was among the first leaders to condemn the remarks of her colleagues and to demand their resignations. She has been at the helm of efforts to create an independent redistricting commission after the leaked audio revealed her colleagues plotting how to manipulate redistricting maps for their benefit.
She’s also been reminding people all along that councilmembers lack the legal authority to force De León off of the council. Only his constituents can vote him out, on the 2024 ballot or through a recall effort.
De León’s opponents face an uphill battle to recall him, in part because his critics are fragmented across the political spectrum. One effort is already underway. Progressives and labor groups are exploring the possibility of organizing their own separate recall drive rather than joining that one.
During a committee hearing on the motion that could curtail De León’s power to help his constituents in the meantime, monolingual Spanish speakers from his district called in to express their opposition. “I’m not a second-class citizen,” one woman said. “My representative should not be treated as less than other members.”
There was no translator available for her or others because they hadn’t requested one in advance as required for committee hearings. Currently, live Spanish interpretation is offered at City Council meetings, but not automatically at committee meetings — even though most Angelenos speak a language other than English at home.
After a city staffer made a cursory attempt to translate and did so poorly, Rodriguez spoke up, arguing that translation services always should be provided in committee hearings. The next day she filed a motion seconded by City Councilmember Nithya Raman requesting reports on the feasibility of doing so.
“I look at a district that is really not much different than my own,” Rodriguez, who represents much of the northeast San Fernando Valley, told me of De León’s majority-Latino district. “How can we put the burden on constituents to request translation? These are working-class communities that have other obligations.”
She has also taken a strong stance against protests that erupt in violence to the detriment of struggling Angelenos. While she received criticism for using the word “terrorism” to describe a disruption at one of De León’s holiday toy giveaways for children, she argues that she’s again trying to stand up for unheard Angelenos, such as those in his district who need services. “I was raised to speak out,” she said. “I can’t be complicit in just going along when I see something that’s not right.”
At a time when De León has failed to behave honorably, Rodriguez, Hernandez and Soto-Martinez all demonstrate what it means to fight for marginalized constituents. In 2023, they’re the ones who are going to redefine Latinx leadership in this city.
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