Leaked racist tape shakes political alliances in Los Angeles

Courtesy Sheri Mandel/City of Los Angeles, City Council/REUTERS
the City of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, U.S., September 18, 2018.

Fallout from a leaked recording of three Latino members of the Los Angeles City Council engaged in a conversation involving racist comments about Black people has imploded the city’s Democratic leadership and destabilized a political partnership built over decades in a place that holds itself up as a model of ethnically diverse governance.

The tape published Sunday has sliced jaggedly through the Latino political hierarchy in the state’s largest city. Latino power broker Ron Herrera resigned late Monday as head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and on Tuesday, council member Nury Martinez announced that she would take a leave of absence after resigning the body’s presidency the previous day.

Martinez and other participants on the call, including council members Gil Cedillo, a longtime labor leader and immigrant advocate, and Kevin de León, a former candidate for U.S. Senate and head of the state Senate, faced relentless demands to resign their seats, including from the White House.

In her daily news briefing, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday that President Biden “believes that they all should resign.”

“The language that was used and tolerated during that conversation was unacceptable and it was appalling,” she said. “They should all step down.”

The four – among the most powerful Democrats in the city – were recorded secretly last year in a conversation that included racist criticism of the young Black son of a colleague, councilman Mike Bonin, and of groups of city voters.

In the taped conversation, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, Martinez is heard referring to Bonin’s adopted son in Spanish as “a little monkey.” Martinez also said that “this kid needs a beatdown” after she disapproved of the boy’s behavior on a council parade float.

Martinez also called Bonin, who is gay, a “little b—-” in the conversation. At one point, she disparaged Indigenous immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and in referring to the district attorney, George Gascón, she cursed him, adding that “he’s with the Blacks.”

While the recording quickly became an existential political threat to the participants, it also exposed fractures in a political partnership that has developed in fits and starts since the 1990s as the city’s Latino population has swelled and the Black population has declined.

To many who have worked in local politics over that time, the recording was a reminder that, while much progress in forming an ethnically diverse coalition has been made, a contest for power and representation endures between some of the city’s most important Black and Latino leaders. The criticism transcended racial lines, with former council member and current U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D) among those demanding resignations.

“On the surface, they appear very much at odds,” said Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science and Chicano studies at Loyola Marymount University. “But so much has been built over the past 30 years, that while this is certainly a strain, I think it could provide an opportunity to reinvigorate a relationship that has been taken for granted for too long.”

The Latino-Black coalition in Los Angeles began taking shape after the long tenure of Tom Bradley, the city’s first and only African American mayor, who served over the two decades ending in 1993.

In his first win in 1973, Bradley assembled a strong coalition of Black and Jewish voters on the city’s wealthy Westside, at a time when Latinos were far fewer in number and held far less political clout. That has changed dramatically: Today, Latinos account for almost half the city’s population while Black people make up less than 10 percent, according to the most recent census figures.

District voting for the 15-member council has also sharpened the competition between Black and Latino people as the demographics have shifted. The primary subject of the secretly recorded conversation centered on how council districts should be drawn, with the participants seeking to ensure a maximum amount of Latino representation on the council, probably at the expense of Black voters and their allies.

“The relationship has a long history and it’s had its ups and downs,” said Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University at Los Angeles. “There was really a period of searching in L.A. politics following the decline of the Bradley coalition and a lot of work went into that searching. I don’t think this episode will eviscerate all of that.”

Sonenshein said the tensions are in part the result of the diverging fortunes – and numbers – of the two electorates.

“This is going to test some relationships that were trusting relationships before,” he said. “That will certainly be a blow to cooperation and will take a lot of work going forward.”

The fallout from the recording could badly damage – or end – the careers of three of the city’s most prominent Latino politicians. It has also drawn old allies into conflict and added a delicate political element to a competitive mayoral race – one that could see the election of the city’s second Black mayor.

Martinez, who features most prominently on the tape, was considered a future mayoral prospect after years as first a Los Angeles school board member and then a city council member. De León ran for mayor this year, finishing third in the primary to Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and wealthy real estate developer Rick Caruso.

Cedillo once worked for the powerful Service Employees International Union, which since the recording was released has called on him and the two other council members to resign, part of an expanding lobby of Latino-dominated groups to weigh in.

“I suspect that Martinez’s leave of absence is not going to be enough for her or for the other council members involved,” said Manuel Pastor, a professor of sociology, American studies, and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. “The tide now is so strong, and while it will be up to the council members themselves to decide whether to resign, I think that will turn out to be the outcome.”

Pastor traced the modern rise of the city’s Black-Latino political partnership to the years following Bradley’s departure, culminating in the 2005 election of Antonio Villaraigosa as the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles.

Although Villaraigosa did not secure enough of the Black vote in his unsuccessful 2001 mayoral campaign, which he lost to longtime city official James Hahn – who is White but had close relationships with the Black community because of his father’s long representation as a county supervisor – he did so by the next election. Pastor described Villaraigosa’s victory in the rematch as “a definitive coming together of the two,” Black and Latino voting blocs.

“There is something to build on,” Pastor said. “But it should be remembered that it takes years to build trust and seconds to tear it down – in this case a phone call that lasted less than an hour. There will be efforts to fix this, but people have been injured.”

Among them is Bonin, who is White. In a Tuesday tweet, Bonin said that no one should vote for any elected official who has not called for the resignation of the three council members.

Hours later, at the first council meeting since the recording was made public, Bonin teared up and said he needed “to focus on love” after several difficult days.

“Like most Angelenos I am reeling from the revelations of what these people said – trusted servants who voiced hate,” said Bonin, who reiterated his call for the council members to resign and seek his son’s forgiveness. “I take a lot of hits, and hell, I know I practically invite a bunch of them, but my son? That makes my soul bleed and it makes my temper burn and I know I’m not alone because Los Angeles has spoken and it feels the same way.”

At the raucous council session, residents shouted down the proceedings, forcing a temporary stoppage as they demanded, often in Spanish, the members’ departures.

Damien Goodmon, a community activist whose great-great-grandfather came to Los Angeles in 1904 from the Jim Crow South, told the council that “over 118 years later, much has changed, but so much remains the same.”

“The tapes have simply brought to the surface an anti-Black racism that permeates within this city government,” Goodmon said. “It is reflected in your policies. It is reflected in your budget. It is reflected in your hiring. It’s no wonder we have a Black displacement crisis and an attempt at Black erasure.”

In his remarks, Bonin praised Bass, the mayoral candidate who before entering electoral politics helped found the Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to unite Black and Latino people in South Los Angeles around issues of housing discrimination, economic development and better transportation services.

The organization, known as CoCo, is referred to derisively several times on the tape as shorthand for Black political interests and allies.

Bass, who is Black and has worked for years with many of those implicated on the tape, initially stopped short of calling for the council members’ resignation, although she said the comments amounted to “appalling anti-Black racism.” She later called on all three council members to resign.

Political analysts say that while Bass has secured much of the African American and White electorate, many Latino voters remain in play, especially in the San Fernando Valley, an area that Martinez represents. Martinez has endorsed Bass for mayor.

Caruso, Bass’s opponent in the November election, noted pointedly in a statement calling for the council members’ resignations that his opponent has been endorsed by some of those caught on the tape.

Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), who is Black, grew up in the years following Bradley’s tenure and said he and many of his colleagues “have moved in Black and Brown solidarity” ever since.

“I was surprised by what I heard, and if you weren’t, you should have been blowing the whistle far earlier,” said Bryan, who was elected last year. “But I don’t think this does much damage to Black and Brown political relationships. There is nobody defending what was said, and I think this shows that we are in a time of solidarity.”