The Ugly Impacts of the Leaked Racist City Council Conversation

Cityside Column: The ramifications of remarks by Nury Martinez, Kevin de Leon and their colleagues will spread the stink of racism across Los Angeles

It’s not easy to knock a slugfest of a mayoral race to a secondary City Hall news topic when there is less than a month until vote counting begins, but L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez just made it happen after an audio recording of her spewing racist insults about a colleague’s young son leaked online.

The Los Angeles Times dropped a bomb with a Sunday morning story about the leaked recording that captured the reprehensible comments made during a conversation among Martinez, Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, and L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. The language Martinez employed when discussing some of her colleagues and the Black son of Councilman Mike Bonin, who is white, is grotesque and squirm-inducing. Audio clips that shove this situation even further into the sewer were posted in a Knock-LA story.

If you are reading this then you likely have already seen or heard the worst of the lines, which in addition to sheer viciousness and lack of taste, show how political hardball is played when those at the highest levels don’t think someone is secretly recording them. Move beyond the attacks, if that’s possible, and it’s amazing how many topics these four manage to cover and how many people they verbally rip to while gathered to discuss the once-a-decade redrawing of L.A.’s 15 council districts. This foursome makes the title crew in Mean Girls seem like puffballs.

While this is a fluid situation and Martinez’s resignation has already been called for by City Councilman Mike Bonin, it’s safe to say that some key elected officials and key figures will face the repercussions of this leak. Consider this a situation where almost everyone loses.

Martinez: The political veteran and head of the council didn’t just put her foot in her mouth. She went to a mall department store and tried to stuff an entire shoe department down her throat. The Council president offered an apology after the Times story first appeared and said that the comments stemmed from a heated discussion related to redistricting.

That is likely to assuage no one. It’s hard to think that Martinez could remain Council president—a post began in 2020—for more than a few days—if that. You can’t lead people when they know you have said colleague’s child, “this kid needs a beatdown.”

The bigger question is whether Martinez even keeps her seat. After the story was published, Twitter was filled with calls for her to resign; although Twitter is basically a reactionary mud pit, in the aftermath of this leak, prominent individuals from across the political, business, nonprofit and cultural spectrum have unified to demand she relinquish her District 6 post. Certain politicians might be able to navigate the moment, and Martinez is tough, but this one requires more than the ability to fight.

Even if she holds on to her seat, can you imagine her running for office again? Just think of how these comments would be used in any future election.

The Bonin Family: Earlier this year, Bonin announced that he would skip running for a third and final term representing District 11, adding that he had experienced mental health challenges and wanted to spend time with his husband and young son; he would leave electoral politics, he said. He was applauded for his decision.

In an awful way, Bonin looks prescient for opting to escape City Hall. The statement he and his husband, Sean Arian, released Sunday afternoon is heartbreaking, including the line: “It hurts that one of our son’s earliest encounters with overt racism comes from some of the most powerful public officials in Los Angeles.”

Later on Sunday, Bonin demanded Martinez resign and also called on de León and Herrera to step down. If there is any ray of sunshine in this sordid mess, it is that Angelenos are already rallying behind Bonin and his family.

Cedillo and de León: Don’t expect many repercussions for District 1 Council Rep. Cedillo. This is not because of a lack of concern about the captured conversation, but rather because he lost his re-election bid in June to progressive challenger Eunisses Hernandez. Cedillo’s term ends in December. He’s likely off to a well-paid private-sector job.

The impact on de León is harder to predict. The former President of the state Senate is one of the more politically astute figures around. He also issued an apology on Sunday. Still, as with Martinez, this moment and these comments will be brutal when he runs for District 14 re-election in 2024.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson: Listen to this leaked City Hall chatter—though I advise against doing so—and you would have long heard that the District 8 representative is considered a leading candidate to be the next council president. Before Sunday, many expected his best chance to take over would be in December when the council selects its leader. This is the fast-forward moment for Harris-Dawson, one of three Black members of the panel. You have to think that at this very second, he is working to get the votes required to win the job.

Rick Caruso: The mall mogul doesn’t directly figure into the conversation. But since launching his mayoral campaign in February, one of his three key points has been that City Hall is filled with corruption, and this makes the businessman appear to be on-point. Even if this is not the traditional trading-favors-for-cash brand of corruption, it makes the entire city political establishment smell and bulks up Caruso’s clean-up guy status. This may not be enough to propel him to victory over U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who remains ahead in most publicly cited polls. Still, it’s something Caruso can use in ads, and the guy loves running ads. If he wins, expect many discussions of whether Martinez unintentionally submarined Bass.

Mark Ridley-Thomas: The veteran politician also figures in the recorded conversation; the Times story describes how the group discusses his indictment by federal authorities last October on bribery and corruption charges. It was Martinez who engineered his suspension from the council a week later, even though he had offered to step back from a public role. That led Controller Ron Galperin to stop paying Ridley-Thomas his salary. Ridley-Thomas has sued the city, asserting the Controller lacks the ability to withhold his pay. Meanwhile, Martinez also led the stinker-iffic process to have first, Herb Wesson and now, Heather Hutt fill Ridley-Thomas’ post.

One thing that’s being overlooked is that Harris-Dawson co-authored a motion asking the City Attorney to report on whether the Controller can yank a Council member’s pay, but the matter has not been fully discussed. If Harris-Dawson becomes Council president, he could ensure the motion gets an airing.

A related question: If Martinez seeks to stay in her seat, what will her colleagues do? If the council waited merely a week before effectively removing Ridley-Thomas, how long will they wait in the wake of these comments, and what steps will they take?

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