LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles City Council appears headed into a long power struggle that threatens an already strained government, as two disgraced councilmen resist widespread calls for their resignation amid a racism scandal and state investigation.
The chaos worsened Wednesday when one of the councilmen, Kevin de León, disclosed in media interviews that he would not step down but wanted to take a leave from council meetings to attempt to restore his reputation. City Council President Paul Krekorian called it unacceptable.
The standoff is unfolding even as there seem to be few hard rules about personal conduct and consequence for public officials. De León's prospects for holding his job remain unclear and he again was out of sight Thursday.
The council already has stripped De León of much of his power in an effort to pressure him to resign, but it has no authority to expel members. Those calling for his resignation for his involvement in a recorded meeting peppered with crude, racial insults include President Joe Biden as well as other elected officials and council members who say they are unwilling to ever work with him again.
“The problem for Kevin de León is there is a tape. It’s race-related in a city with difficult racial tensions,” said veteran Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, who advised former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when the one-time action star weathered accusations of sexual misconduct during his 2003 campaign for governor.
“This one seems like it would be difficult to stick out,” Stutzman added, referring to the cascade of calls for his resignation and frayed racial relations. To survive “you have to come up with some type of coalition to support you in the next week or it starts to look pretty grim.”
No such coalition has emerged. Disclosure of the recording has been followed by days of public outrage and protests. A sign of more trouble came from two Black developers working on a downtown project who said in a letter to the council that they could no longer work with de León, whose district includes the project that would be anchored to two hotels.
The developers — R. Donahue Peebles and Victor MacFarlane — called for his resignation and wrote that de León had been dismissive of their proposal, meeting with them just once over two years.
The uproar began with the release nearly two weeks ago of a previously unknown recording of a 2021 private meeting involving de León, two other council members and a powerful labor leader, all Latino Democrats, in which they schemed to protect their political clout in the redrawing of council districts during an hourlong conversation laced with bigoted comments.
Within days, then-City Council President Nury Martinez and the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Ron Hererra, had resigned. De León and Councilman Gil Cedillo, who also attended the meeting, appear intent on keeping their jobs, though Cedillo has said little publicly about the tape and has not appeared at recent council meetings.
Cedillo's term ends in December, but de León also could face a recall election.
In recent decades, Americans generally have displayed a greater tolerance for bad personal judgment, indiscretions or worse by public officials and candidates. Former President Donald Trump was accused by more than a dozen women of sexual misconduct. Former President Bill Clinton had a sexual relationship with a White House intern.
But racial matters are different. The language on the recording upended years of delicate relations between Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles, who often form coalitions to achieve political ends. Many said that trust was broken.
“It is unforgiveable,” Councilman Curren Price, who is Black, said on Twitter.
Some of the looming unknowns include whether more tapes could surface. No one knows who made the recording — or why. Meanwhile, the state is investigating how the districts were drawn and whether the process was rigged. Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat, has said his investigation could lead to civil liability or criminal charges, depending on what is found.
Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio said it's possible for de León to survive, but he must make sincere apologies and win back his constituents' trust. That would start with small private meetings with business leaders, or coffee with community groups — any larger event would attract protests.
He pointed to former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who survived calls for his resignation after a picture surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook showing a man in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. The Democrat initially acknowledged he was in the photo and apologized, then reversed course, saying he was not in it.
De León's efforts to remain in office might have a financial motive.
Disclosure forms filed with the state show he holds only modest investments — tech stocks valued between $8,000 and $40,000. Los Angeles City Council members are among the highest paid in the country with annual salaries of nearly $229,000, along with pension and medical benefits.
One person unlikely to lend a sympathetic ear to de León will be the state’s most powerful Democrat, Gov. Gavin Newsom. The governor and the councilman, who was once a Democratic leader in the state Senate, have had strained relations for years that worsened when de León embarked on a failed attempt to oust U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018.
“It’s no secret Gov. Newsom did not appreciate it when Kevin ran against Dianne Feinstein. It was viewed by Newsom ... as a gesture of disrespect that was doomed from the beginning,” said Newsom adviser Nathan Ballard.
“Kevin seemed to have thin skin in relation to all things Newsom,” Ballard added. A rivalry with the governor “existed only in Kevin’s mind.”