The Kevin de Le贸n Drama Is Now a Battle to Reshape L.A. Politics

Cityside Column: A physical confrontation and angry crowds throw city politics over the top rope in what could end with a brutal recall election
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This week in Los Angeles was supposed to be the Karen Bass show, with the city celebrating the historic arrival of its first woman mayor. Indeed, L.A. has reveled in a change in leadership after nearly a decade of Eric Garcetti, highlighted by an inauguration featuring a performance by Stevie Wonder, and a sense of hope as Bass rolls out her plan to address the homelessness crisis.聽

Yet the installation of Bass as mayor has been preempted, in part, by the situation mushrooming around Councilmember Kevin de Le贸n, a political establishment drawing a line in the sand and a gaggle of disruptors who have tossed out decorum in the effort to force him from office.

The heated and ugly turn of recent days was initiated by the now-infamous, secret recording made public in October. But there is also a political agenda at play here and opportunism is in full swing. But beware of those who claim this is solely about trying to eject a veteran politician for racist and hateful things uttered during a redistricting discussion 14 months ago. This is now a battle to shape the political structure of L.A.

The current moment has now become a melding of City Hall politics and professional wrestling, complete with physical conflict and overheated crowds. Unlike the WWE, nothing here is scripted and rather than a battle for a belt, the stakes are real and communities are suffering as it plays out.

At the center is de Le贸n, the former president of the state Senate who zoomed into the District 14 Council seat in 2020 and then ran for mayor (he finished a very distant third in the June primary). He has always operated with strategy and his environmental advocacy and leadership skills led to some high regard in Democrat circles鈥攊n wrestling terms, he was a 鈥渇ace,鈥 or a good guy; the leak of the recording instantly turned him into a 鈥渉eel.鈥 His apology tour after the first act of the scandal closed has failed to reverse his villain status. With the other participants in the ugly conversation heard on the leaked audio are now gone from politics鈥攖hen-City Council President Nury Martinez and labor leader Ron Herrera have resigned and Councilmember Gil Cedillo was booted in the June election鈥攄e Le贸n is a lone heel here but refuses across-the-board entreaties to step down.

The pressure has intensified but a new level was reached Friday evening with an instantly infamous fight breaking out at a community event. We鈥檝e all seen the discomfiting videos, which show the councilman tangling with a man named Jason Reedy.

Some people, particularly on Twitter, chastise de Le贸n for engaging in anything physical. But one thing above all others is clear鈥攊f Reedy and the other disruptors didn鈥檛 crash the Lincoln Park family event and get right up in de Le贸n鈥檚 grill then none of this would have gone down. It doesn鈥檛 matter that Reedy adopts the tactic of going face-to-face with the councilman and then holding his hands high as if to plead victimhood鈥攖ruly the epitome of instigation. I have spoken with some who are sickened by the footage of this incident and also desperately want de Le贸n to resign; each person says that if they were in the embattled councilman鈥檚 situation, they would have done much more than we saw from him to defend themselves.

This instigation at the event is par for the course for a battalion of left-leaning folks in Los Angeles who have been showing some burning anger about city policies tied to policing and homelessness. Sometimes the debate on these matters is constructive but at times, the focus seems to be on volume and producing short videos meant for social media virality. Multiple times in recent years,聽disruptors shouted into bullhorns outside politicians鈥 homes, and some also hurled expletives at mayoral debates. One group last weekend sought to smudge the inauguration of District 11 Councilmember Traci Park.

It鈥檚 worth noting that de Le贸n is no new target and attacks on the councilman predate the October audio leak. For example, he and his staff were the targets of invective in March when his office worked to clear a tent encampment in Little Tokyo.

Is the vehemence working in the favor of its perpetrators? In some segments of the web, every act is celebrated. But not so much in others and the disruption this week involving de Leon could boomerang鈥攁s Gustavo Arellano writes in an聽L.A. Times column, 鈥淓scalating actions to the lengths of this past week will convince few鈥 and 鈥渨ill strengthen de Le贸n鈥檚 hand by allowing him to play the victim card.鈥

That point was hit again Tuesday when the City Council held its final meeting of the year. Everyone knew de Le贸n planned to show up and the room had both supporters of the councilman and furious opponents who, during the public comment period launched a loud stream of F-bombs, one by one. It鈥檚 hard to figure out who they won over when anyone watching at home saw a string of people being removed from Council chambers.

The more intriguing play comes from the other 13 City Council members, who seem to have settled on their strategy. When de Le贸n entered, most of the elected officials walked out. That led to an hour-long delay in Tuesday鈥檚 meeting and threatened the vote on Bass鈥檚 homelessness emergency declaration. From there, things got sneaky, as de Le贸n left the chambers but still voted from a back room. The approval was granted.

As for the next plays, it鈥檚 anyone鈥檚 guess. At Tuesday鈥檚 meeting, City Council President Paul Krekorian had a long one-on-one discussion with de Le贸n; details of that chat were kept private. Intriguingly, the powerful players here could be just-sworn-in reps Eunisses Hernandez (who defeated Cedillo) and Hugo Soto-Martinez. Both are darlings of the left, and when the City Council resumes meeting in January, one can see a world in which they stand and urge an angry crowd to quiet down so their representatives can do the city鈥檚 business. But Hernandez and Soto-Martinez have their own bases and their own agendas鈥攓uelling a crowd may not be their initial tactic.

Meanwhile, a recall effort is emerging in District 14. Signatures are being gathered but the pace of the process for forcing a recall vote is glacial.

All of this is about de Le贸n but it harks back to the clich茅 about never wasting a crisis and the leaders of a well-organized L.A. progressive wing have to smell an opportunity. In the last two elections, a total of three centrist Council incumbents were bounced by those running to their left. The game plan seems to be, to take as many bites at the electoral apple as possible.

A de Le贸n resignation would prompt a special election, and District 14 includes Downtown L.A. and its growing residential base鈥攁nd Skid Row, the epicenter of the homelessness crisis in the city. Opening the seat could produce an epic and bitter election pitting a centrist Democrat against a left-leaning challenger. That鈥檚 theoretical, as de Le贸n still holds his seat and says he is not stepping down鈥攆or now.

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