Kevin de León’s Fight for His Political Life Starts with the Death of His Recall

Cityside Column: The embattled District 14 council rep faces the biggest election of his career after the quiet death of efforts to recall him

For those hoping to see District 14 Councilmember Kevin de León bounced from office, the day of reckoning was Friday, March 31. The effort to force de León into a recall election had begun in December, and organizers needed to get 20,437 valid signatures — 15 percent of the registered voters in his Eastside territory — by that deadline to move forward.

They did not even come close.

Despite the October release of the leaked recording involving de León and now-former Council President Nury Martinez — the one that that immolated her career and led to the incessant calls for him to resign— the recall organizers did not even turn in any petitions to the City Clerk to recall de León by Friday.

It marked the third botched recall attempt since de León took office in late 2020.

The failure is not surprising: Recall efforts are (and should be) hard, and require either a lot of well-organized volunteers or a mountain of money to pay for professional signature gatherers. That difficulty is why even well-funded efforts to remove District Attorney George Gascón and then-District 11 Councilmember Mike Bonin both tanked.

The crew hoping to eject de León seemed less like a shrewd force and more Keystone Kops playing at politics: The recall website was shoddy and overall organization seemed slim. I saw petition-gatherers a handful of times at a table outside the Eagle Rock Trader Joe’s, but there was little general notice of their efforts.

And now, after people from across the city weighed in on what they thought de León should do, it looks like his constituents alone will decide his fate next year.

A fourth recall attempt is technically possible, but it makes little sense right now because a regularly scheduled election primary is happening next March; any runoff would be in November 2024. The outside noise will continue, and plenty of people will try to influence what happens, but ultimately it will come down to whether District 14 residents want de León or someone else.

Assuming he runs again — and he has not yet filed with the City Ethics Commission to raise money for the race, though there is plenty of time to do so — convincing those voters would likely be the fight of de León’s political life.

That is saying something, considering that the former president of the California Senate has both a string of notable victories and has lost two elections. He finished a distant third when running for mayor last year, and also got beat when he challenged U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018.

Other names will appear on the ballot but, more than anything, de León will be running against himself. Homelessness and public safety will be key issues, but this will likely come down to whether residents of Boyle Heights, Downtown and some northeast L.A. neighborhoods trust and believe in him.

All of his potential problems in an election, of course, spring from a meeting about redistricting attended by three council members that was surreptitiously recorded in the headquarters of the County Federation of Labor in October 2021 and made public a year later. The fallout was swift: Council president Martinez resigned within days of the world hearing her racist and hateful comments, including those about the son of then-council member Bonin. Labor leader Ron Herrera also quickly stepped down. Councilmember Gil Cedillo refused to quit, but the matter was moot: He’d already lost his re-election and was replaced by Eunisses Hernandez in December.

De León, however, ultimately survived the fallout — but not without some problems. He did an apology tour that could hardly be classified as a success. He was stripped of his committee assignments. He has been screamed at during council meetings, his staff has been harassed in ugly ways, and a group of opponents ruined a community Christmas toy giveaway by instigating a physical confrontation.

Six months after the leak, de León’s political future remains uncertain.

Some lump him in with Martinez and refuse to hear any defense of his attendance at the meeting, saying that he should have challenged her raw and abhorrent language and noting that he made an unsavory remark comparing a Black child to a luxury handbag (de León maintains the comment was poking fun at Martinez, not the boy). Those detractors argue that, even if she was the primary bile spewer, he was complicit in the conversation and needs to go.

Others acknowledge the nastiness of the exchange, but maintain that de León did not talk like Martinez did and that any comments he uttered are not sufficient reason to destroy a career that has included significant work on behalf of marginalized communities. They question how anyone would fare if their ugliest conversation was recorded and posted online by someone with an unknown political agenda.

Which message rings true? What do constituents think?

Right now no one knows and, in electoral politics, a year is a lifetime anyway. Ultimately the councilman’s fate will be up to the 137,840 registered voters of the district — including people who picked him over four competitors in 2020, and others who supported him in previous elections.

There is also the fact that, despite his diminished juice in City Hall, de León has remained a presence in the district: He appears at community events and can point to multiple places where homeless encampments have disappeared and Tiny Homes Villages have opened.

The most intriguing development in the coming months will be who runs against him. Just because de León is vulnerable does not mean he is easy to beat and, while plenty of people may be sniffing around, no mainstream Democrat has yet registered to run.

How will it all end? I have no idea, and neither do you. But ultimately this will be the definition of democracy: The councilman and everyone else on the ballot will attend forums, knock on doors, face tough questions, defend their record and try to win one vote at a time. The decision belongs not to those with the loudest voices or the most Twitter followers, but rather, the people of District 14.

Game on.

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