As New Leaders Take Office, Los Angeles Struggles With Ongoing Wounds

LOS ANGELES — Come Monday evening, Kevin de León will be the lone Los Angeles politician still in his job among the four leaders who discussed local politics in racist terms on a recording that has roiled the nation’s second most populous city since October, when it surfaced online.

If anyone thought a new mayor, a new City Council class and two months of time would defuse tensions, perhaps giving Mr. de León, a veteran Democrat, a path to political redemption, a string of events on Friday signaled otherwise.

When he unexpectedly attempted to return to the council dais after an absence of weeks, demonstrators shouted and screamed, three colleagues walked out in protest, and the council recessed until Mr. de León left the chambers.

That was only the prelude to an uglier confrontation hours later. On Friday evening, as a food and toy giveaway wrapped up in his district, Mr. de León, wearing a Santa hat, got into a skirmish with a well-known local activist who has called for months for the councilman’s resignation.

Another recording — this time a cellphone video released by activists — showed Mr. de León and the activist, Jason Reedy, confronting each other, their faces inches apart, then the two of them wrestling in a nearby corridor, with Mr. de León shoving Mr. Reedy in one corner. Each man has accused the other of starting the altercation.

The upheaval underscored the ongoing challenges as Karen Bass prepares to be sworn in on Sunday as the first female mayor of Los Angeles and five new City Council members get ready to begin work next week. They will confront a city exhausted by mounting homelessness, crime, costs of living and ethnic divisions.

Angelenos have welcomed the new leadership, but the political confrontations on Friday dimmed hopes for a quick return to civility. The latest developments epitomized the acrimony that has plagued the city’s governance, said Fernando Guerra, whose Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University regularly surveys residents.

“None of this was surprising at all,” Mr. Guerra said. “Kevin de León, the protesters — it could have been scripted exactly as it happened. It was almost a symbolic end that sums up this whole City Council. And it remains to be seen whether the next City Council can make a new beginning.”

The leadership turnover in Los Angeles will be among the most comprehensive in a generation. The current mayor, Eric Garcetti, has led the city for nearly a decade and a third of the 15-member City Council will be replaced.

Yet another council vacancy will be filled with a new leader early next year, when a special election is held to fill the office of the former council president, Nury Martinez, who resigned in the aftermath of the audio scandal. On the recording, Ms. Martinez, who is Mexican American, made disparaging and racist remarks about the Black son of a fellow council member, as well as Oaxacan immigrants and other ethnic groups.

Still more turmoil awaits City Hall as court proceedings unfold in public corruption cases involving one former council member and another who has been suspended.

Ms. Bass, who has represented Los Angeles for years in the State Legislature and Congress, campaigned on a vow to help lead the city to consensus, building coalitions in the diverse and teeming metropolis of four million people. But the challenge is formidable as the city continues to grapple with quality of life issues that have festered since the pandemic, reflecting a struggle that has occurred nationally.

Tent camps dot sidewalks citywide — one downtown encampment, in fact, was dismantled last week, its occupants moved to hotel rooms, to make room for a celebration of Ms. Bass’s inauguration before incoming storms forced the festivities indoors at L.A. Live, a downtown entertainment complex.

Crime rates, while far lower than their peak in the 1990s, have risen, and a citywide poll done this year by Mr. Guerra’s research center found that for the first time since 2012, a majority of Angelenos felt the city was going in the wrong direction.

And that was before Mr. de León, Ms. Martinez and a third Latino council member, Gil Cedillo, were caught on a recording last year strategizing in blunt and occasionally bigoted terms to consolidate power for themselves and the city’s Latino communities as the city’s redistricting maps were being redrawn.

The group believed that their conversation, which included a powerful local labor leader who also resigned, was private, but it was being secretly recorded and was later uploaded to Reddit. Mr. Cedillo, who lost a bid for re-election before the recording’s emergence, has apologized for not cutting the conversation short but has not stepped down and will leave office on Monday. He has not returned to the council chambers since the scandal, and investigations have since ensued into the unlawful recording, the leak and the city’s redistricting process.

Of the four participants in the recorded conversation, only Mr. de León will remain in office after Monday. He has apologized profusely but refused to step down, saying his remarks were less caustic than those of Ms. Martinez, for example, and that what he did say had been misunderstood and that his resignation would leave his constituents, many of whom are poor or working class, without adequate representation.

On Tuesday, political opponents who have tried unsuccessfully to recall Mr. de León received approval from the city clerk to begin collecting signatures for a fresh recall petition. To qualify for the ballot, organizers of the campaign must collect more than 20,000 signatures from registered voters in his district by the end of March.

In an interview this week, before Friday’s unsettling events, Mr. Garcetti, the outgoing mayor, reiterated calls for Mr. de León to resign.

“He seems determined to come back, and I’ve told him, ‘Look, the way back is by doing the hard work. And that can’t be by holding the institution of the council hostage, which essentially is what he’s doing by not resigning,” Mr. Garcetti said. “You have to listen to the communities you’ve hurt.”

The mayor, who has been nominated to an ambassador post in India by the Biden administration and is awaiting Senate confirmation, said he was unswayed by the argument, raised both by Mr. de León and Mr. Cedillo, that their remarks on the audio had not been overtly racist.

“Just because you’ve crossed the line by a couple inches and somebody does it by a couple of feet, doesn’t mean you haven’t crossed the line,” Mr. Garcetti said.

He and Mr. Guerra also both faulted the protesters who for the past several years have escalated disruptions at council meetings. Mr. Guerra noted that the ongoing practice of shouting council members down has not worked and has become increasingly counterproductive, undercutting support for progressive causes. And Mr. Garcetti denounced the corrosion of respect the demonstrations have caused at the City Council.

Jason Reedy speaking at the Los Angeles City Council meeting on Friday. Credit…Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

As Mr. de León struggled to return to City Hall on Friday, another council member, Paul Koretz, who is leaving his city post this week because of term limits, used his farewell remarks at the meeting to bid an uncharacteristically profane goodbye to local activists who have, he said, “done their best to make it difficult for us to do our work in the last 2½ years.” The 67-year-old councilman then signed off with one of the demonstrators’ most frequently deployed epithets.

Friday’s holiday party confrontation, according to Mr. de León and an aide, spiraled out of control after Mr. Reedy and his crew blocked the exits, head-butted the councilman and elbowed his aide in the face.

“Kids were crying, parents were horrified. It was stunning. They crossed every line imaginable,” Mr. de León said in an interview on Friday. “Verbal assaults have escalated to political violence, and that’s not good. It’s not good for society, it’s not good for democracy.”

An attorney for Mr. Reedy said in an email that the councilman’s supporters initiated the assault, shoving Mr. Reedy after he criticized Mr. de León and called for his resignation.

The attorney, Shakeer Rahman, also shared a statement from Mr. Reedy, defending the ongoing demonstrations. “We are the only reason Kevin de León hasn’t returned to City Council meetings,” the statement said. “If it weren’t for the protests, the same politicians who demanded his resignation and censured him would have moved on. People in power will never like the protests they face.”

Despite current tensions, Mr. Garcetti said the leak of the recording will result in needed, lasting reforms in Los Angeles. He said he was pleasantly surprised by how much the reaction solidified coalitions in the city, as opposed to deepening racial and ethnic divides.

“It’s kind of like an earthquake shows you how strong your buildings are,” he said. “This was a metaphor for that. There was an earthquake, and we didn’t fall down.”

Jill Cowan contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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