LA City Councilman and former California Senate President Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) announced on Wednesday that he would be running for reelection next year despite being caught making racist statements in a leaked audio recording last year, which resulted in him nearly being recalled.
De Leon has had one of the wildest roller coaster rides in recent Californian political history. A graduate of Pitzer College, de Leon held many jobs from the late 1980s to the mid 2000s, including being a worker assisting illegal immigrants, a labor organizer for the California Teachers Association, and as a campaign manager for then-Assemblyman Fabian Nunez. This pedigree brewed a lot of support for de Leon, which resulted in him being elected to the Assembly in 2006.
As an Assemblyman in 2008, he faced a scandal when he was found to have made illegal ghost votes for another Assemblymember who was going to vote the other way. Although unpunished by then-Assembly speaker and future Congresswoman and LA Mayor Karen Bass, the incident, along with personality issues, cost him his chance to become the next Speaker. In 2010, he switched gears and was elected to the state Senate, still largely riding on the support from the Latino community in his district.
While he was subsequently elected in as the Senate President in 2014, he faced even more scandals in his eight years in the Senate. This included him voting against a water bill when the company that benefited from his vote had previously donated to his campaign, called much of the state derogatorily “Tumbleweeds,” and faced criticism over the ways he got several bills passed. Term-limited in 2018, he then ran for the U.S. Senate, but subsequently lost to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) 54% to 46% when his past scandals came up, and he struggled with fundraising.
De Leon returned to the political arena in 2020, winning a March 2020 special election to replace Jose Huizar, who had left office over racketeering and other charges. Once in, de Leon’s controversies continued over how closely he was financially tied to an AIDS non-profit, attempting to stall a rapid transit project, and then flat-out forgetting the pledge of allegiance during a City Council meeting. These gaffes helped him land in a distant third in the 2022 LA Mayoral primary, coming behind Bass and developer Rick Caruso. However, for de Leon, the worst was yet to come.
The racist recording incident
In October 2022, De Leon, along with then-LA City Council President Nury Martinez, Councilman Gil Cedillo, and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, were found to have made multiple racist and racial comments when an audio recording of the four talking during a district realigning meeting in 2021 was leaked. While many things were said, the most controversial part was when they discussed Mike Bonin, a fellow Councilman who is white and openly gay. Specifically they talked about his black child and a picture with Bonin and his family in a Martin Luther King Jr. parade.
“Bonin thinks he’s f—ing black,” said Martinez in the audio, pointing out the picture. “He handled his young Black son as though he were an accessory. They’re raising him like a little White kid. I was like, this kid needs a beatdown. Let me take him around the corner and then I’ll bring him back.”
Martinez then proceeded to use slurs against the eight-year-old child, saying in Spanish “Parece changuito” or in English, “He’s like a monkey.” Councilman de Leon then added, “Bonin handles the toddler like when Nury brings her little yard bag or the Louis Vuitton bag. Su negrito, like on the side.”
In addition to the racist words, the four were also heard plotting to reorganize Council lines to decrease the power of black Councilmembers and others in the city.
In the ensuing weeks, all four made multiple apologies, both Martinez and Herrera resigned and Cedillo decided to ride out the rest of his term until December as a lame duck Councilmember. However, calls for de Leon to resign came from the majority of Angelinos, as well as Mayor Eric Garcetti, Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA), Governor Gavin Newsom, and President Joe Biden.
A recall effort was launched against him, and at one point, 60% of his constituents were against him. However, he rallied his core, mostly Latino base and managed to defeat the recall bid in April. Because of this this, de Leon has been largely quiet since October of last year. For a while, de Leon couldn’t escape protestors outside his home or at the LA City Hall. However, despite the incident still remaining fresh in the minds of voters, and years of political baggage he has built up, de Leon announced on Wednesday that he would be running for the Council again next year.
A 2024 run for KDL
In a statement on Wednesday, de Leon noted that he has lost many political allies and potential voters because of the racist recording scandal. But he also said that his constituents there still “had his back” and that he would be running again to help his district.
“When a lot of people that I called my friends and allies turned away from me, my constituents had my back,” said de Leon. “I understood in a deeper way the relationship that I had with my community and how that motivates and drives me. That’s why I’m still here. And that’s why I’m running.”
“I have made unprecedented strides in the district on public safety and homelessness. My constituents deserve this high level of dedicated public service.”
Even with strong constituent support, political experts have said that de Leon still faces an uphill battle next year. He is likely to face several strong contenders in the March primary for the Council seat, including potential bids from Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), and tenants rights lawyer Ysabel Jurado.
“Our public values are in alignment,” added Carrillo. “But often, it is what is said behind closed doors that shares who you really are. That’s why we’re in this situation now.”
Also up in the air is how de Leon, now shunned by most major Democratic leaders and organizations, can come up with proper funding. During his last Council win in 2020, de Leon won with only 52% of the vote while having raised $1 million and being scandal-free at the time. In 2024, the dynamics have changed.
“He really helped the Latino community in and around his district, and they will never forget that ” said Maria Costa, a Los Angeles pollster who focuses on Latino communities. “Honestly, he still has a lot of support there, and he has spent the summer going out and about trying to repair his reputation. And his staff has being using the usual playbook for political rehabilitation, right down to ‘getting your picture taken eating food at a local restaurant.'”
“But he has lost the support of most big Democrats. I mean, look who is looking to challenge him. That’s two sitting Assemblymembers, as well as some locals with big niches. And you can bet that, if he makes it past the primary, Democratic leadership will pour money into the other candidate whoever he or she may be.”
“Right now, all he has is local support. If they weren’t going to get rid of him for saying some really racist things, they won’t ever. But he is losing some support amongst them. Non-Latinos in the district all fled from him last year, and so there are few areas for growth. Republicans hate his guts and younger voters tend to not like him, so those avenues are out. The March primary is going to show if he still has enough support after everything. If he gets less than 50% in the primary, it is definitely game on. Santiago and Carrillo are the two most likely candidates to then face him in November, and you can bet that they have a LOT on him.”
“Also not helping is that 2024 is a presidential year, so a lot more people will be out to vote, and not just his supporters. Other Democrats in the area will probably avoid him and conservatives, blacks, and other smaller voting groups will probably pick whoever runs opposite of him after all the recent stuff he pulled.”
“By polling, I can tell you that a lot of people inLA, not usually political, know of that scandal. Even if it is just cursory. One of the top responses in our polls to the question ‘Have you heard of Kevin de Leon?’ is ‘Oh, he’s that racist guy, right?’ That’s not exactly the kind of association you want going into a major election.”
The Los Angeles City Council primary election is set to be held on March 5th.