Carlos Heredia has been volunteering with various organizations in L.A.’s Eastside for years.
But in the weeks following the leaked recording of Los Angeles City Council members making racist comments, he witnessed protesters blocking exits at community events in Lincoln Heights and yelling at seniors, calling them traitors. When he learned that the activists planned to attend another community event, he opted not to take his young children with him.
For two months, Councilmember Kevin de León has been followed by a group of angry protesters demanding he leave office for his role in racist remarks made during a secretly taped backroom meeting in October of 2021.
Despite the loud protests and chaos that have followed the release of the backroom audio this fall, Heredia says, “I don’t care if Kevin stays or goes, but I hope he doesn’t go because of violence and threats. Many people support him in that.”
Heredia’s view of the protests that have engulfed de León and City Hall is, “We don’t need anybody else to talk for us. We have our voice.”
Heredia is among the supporters and residents of the 14th City Council District, which includes Downtown L.A. and heavily Latino working-class Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and Northeast L.A., who believe the decision to keep or remove de León is up to voters in his district.
Protesters are following de León around town, spurred by the secretly recorded 2021 backroom discussion between then-City Council President Nury Martinez, then-City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, then-Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera and de León. The foursome discussed how they might manipulate L.A.’s redistricting process to benefit Latinos.
Martinez and Herrera resigned after the media published the controversial discussion, in which Martinez said L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón “is with the Blacks.” De León mocked white Councilmember Mike Bonin as the city council’s “fourth Black member.” Councilmember Cedillo finished his final term on the city council in December and is no longer in office.
But de León, who only a few months ago was vying for the mayor’s open seat, signaled that he was not going anywhere. Calls from fellow Democrats, and even President Joe Biden — who urged those who made racist remarks during the 2021 meeting to step down — didn’t sway de León.
On Dec. 12, several city council members stood up and walked out after de León appeared in the city council chamber, amid shouts of protest from activists demanding his resignation. The council members were reacting in part to a video of de León taken on Dec. 10 at a Lincoln Heights toy giveaway in which de León physically fought with activist Jason Reedy — who had confronted de León and appeared to head-butt de León as small children nearby cried and screamed.
Appearing on CNN on Dec. 13, de León denied making racist remarks in the secretly taped audio in 2021, saying the most offensive remarks on tape came from Nury Martinez who called Councilmember Bonin’s young Black son a “changuito” — Spanish for “little monkey.” De León said he apologized for failing to stop the offensive comments.
De León argues that an allegedly disturbing comment he made on the audio was twisted by media. During the conversation, de León compared Bonin’s handling of his young Black son to carrying an accessory. “I shouldn’t have said what I said,” De León told CNN, saying he didn’t mean to hurt Bonin or his son but instead was commenting on Martinez’ “penchant for luxury handbags.”
A recall petition against de León was approved by L.A.’s Office of the Clerk in early December, allowing organizers to collect signatures. More than 20,437 registered voters in the 14th District must sign the recall petition by the end of March to prompt a recall vote.
Heredia said it is up to District 14 voters, not those who live outside his district, to decide the fate of de León.
“If he did something wrong, then let the process go vote him out,” he said, “but not because of threats.”
Heredia declined to comment on where he lives because he has received death threats for supporting de León, and he is worried that tension between the protesters and locals in the 14th District could escalate into violence.
Heredia said he has heard from parents and seniors who are skipping popular toy drives and other community events to avoid clashes with anti-de León activists. “They are bothering us in a wrong way that is not sitting well with the community,” he said. “If parents and children don’t come out, how do we get the toys to the kids?”
“This is not about Kevin,” Heredia said, “but about invading our community with violence and threats.”
De León’s spokesman Pete Brown said his office is hiring security because the council member has received death threats.
The plan is to “increase the security in advance to ensure that our constituents are not threatened, intimidated or harmed,” Brown said.
“It was very unfortunate that people think that the use of threats and the use intimidation or intimidating practices are OK,” he said. “And that they have the right to make other people feel scared in their own communities. That’s unacceptable.”
Aracelly Cauich, the founder of Hummingbird Hope L.A., said she was called offensive names after voicing her support of de León at community events, but that didn’t change her beliefs.
Cauich is one of de León’s supporters who say the councilman has authored and advanced life-changing laws on behalf of unhoused and undocumented immigrants. In 2017, the “sanctuary state” bill, authored by de León as a state legislator in Sacramento, was signed into law. It forbids law enforcement agencies from contacting immigration authorities in cases of minor crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
In 2013, de León played a major role in advancing a law that allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
“We all want him to stay,” said Cauich. “We’re going to get mad if he leaves. We need him to keep working in our district.”
Cauich said she worked with de León’s office when the pandemic hit, looking for ways to help homeless people.
She said it didn’t bother her when, earlier this year, she learned about his aspirations to become a mayor, a move that could have left his City Council seat vacant.
“I hoped he would become a mayor,” she said. “Everyone makes mistakes, but Kevin de León is a good leader.”
But Carlos M. Montes, a longtime Boyle Heights resident, said he is worried about the growing gentrification in District 14, and the fact that de León was booted from the city council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee, known as PLUM, due to his comments in the leaked audio.
Until that scandal broke, District 14 was healing from years of inattention under de León’s predecessor, former District 14 City Councilmember Jose Huizar, who was indicted for corruption by the Department of Justice in July 2020. Huizar faces federal charges of bribery for allegedly taking $1.5 million from billionaire developers seeking Huizar’s support of their proposed projects in Downtown L.A., including a now-dead plan to build the tallest skyscraper on the West Coast.
Huizar, who has pleaded not guilty, is expected to face trial in February 2023. A Chinese real estate company was convicted in early November on federal charges of bribing Huizar with cash and gambling trips as it sought his support of its proposed skyscraper.
Montes questioned whether de León, who has attended only two City Council meetings since the backroom audio doomed the careers of Nury Martinez and Ron Herrera, can introduce motions that address the needs in his district — and get needed support from fellow council members.
“He’s been taken off all the major committees of the city, including the PLUM committee, so how can you do anything?” Montes asked. “Many of the council people don’t want to work with him. At this point, he’s very ineffective.”
Claudia Oliveira, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council located in District 14, said de León should have started his apology tour in the community, not by appearing on media outlets.
Oliveira said her neighborhood council has considered asking other council members to introduce motions on District 14’s behalf, circumventing de León, because she is worried that other council members will not support his motions.
“It’s very unlikely that (council members) will jump and sign their name next to his,” Oliveira said.
Hugh Esten, the spokesman for City Council President Paul Krekorian, said council members can potentially carry motions on behalf of other districts, a practice that was used following the departure of the federally indicted Jose Huizar.
Still, Oliveira questioned de León’s motives when she saw him attending toy giveaways and tree lightings in recent weeks and not paying attention to the district’s most pressuring issues such as homelessness.
“I personally feel that these events are self-promoting,” she said. “These events were happening when he was running for mayor.”
She added that “the sentiment of the community is that it’s a sore eye because nothing has been done to heal the community. … If you cause harm to someone or a community and you do nothing to repair it and act as if nothing happened, people are going to feel re-victimized.”