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Audio leak of profane, racist remarks leaves LA City Hall in disarray

LA City Council President Nury Martinez has stepped down as president, after the audio recording of her making racist remarks surfaced.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A leaked audio recording of an expletive-filled meeting between three Los Angeles City Council members and a labor leader, who can be heard making numerous racist slurs, some about their City Hall colleagues, has sent shockwaves through LA's political establishment.

On Monday, the day after the news broke, City Council President Nury Martinez announced she was stepping down as president. Many Southern California politicians, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla and both mayoral candidates have called for the three council members — Martinez, Kevin de Leon, and Gil Cedillo — to resign from office, as has the Los Angeles Times editorial board.

The 80-minute audio clip, which has been uploaded to YouTube by the progressive news site KnockLA, provides a rare peak into the coarse, cynical and mean ways in which the city's elected officials relate to one another. The four Latino officials speak openly and cynically about defending their political turf from their enemies — namely, from Black and white politicians.

Referring to progressive District Attorney George Gascón, Martinez says, "Fuck that guy. He's with the Blacks."

Martinez calls progressive City Councilman Mike Bonin, a white gay man, a "little bitch." Perhaps the most shocking part of the conversation is when it turns to Bonin's adopted son, who is Black, whom they seem to suggest Bonin is parenting too leniently.

"They're raising him like a little white kid," Martinez says. "I was like, this kid needs a beatdown. Let me take him around the corner and then I’ll bring him back.” Martinez, who at times uses Spanish phrases while speaking, describes the child as "parece changuito," or "like a monkey."

The recording reveals Martinez and De Leon, a recent candidate for U.S. Senate and mayor, to be fixated on racial resentments, returning to the theme over and over again.

"It's the white members on this council that will motherfuck you in a heartbeat," Martinez says, referring to the potential of City Controller Ron Galperin to stop paying suspended City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' salary — which he did do. "That's what they do."

De Leon agrees, comparing the situation to when his former colleague in the Legislature, Tony Mendoza, was accused of sexual harassment.

"The white folks will cut you in a heartbeat," De Leon says. "And then when it's them, they figure out some shit."

"They get a PR firm," Martinez agrees. "They get the best attorneys."

The council members go on to insult Armenians, a few other City Council members, even a reporter for the LA Times, whom Martinez calls a "fucking little piece of shit."

According to the Times, which first reported on the leaked audio, the conversation first took place in mid-October 2021 at the offices of the LA County Federation of Labor, ), an umbrella group that represents most unions in the city, and also included the head of that group, Rob Herrera (who resigned from his post Monday night. A federation spokesperson told the Times that the recording was part of a "serious security and privacy breach" at the federation's offices involving “illegal” recordings of “many private and confidential conversations in private offices and conference rooms."

It was uploaded to the site Reddit by an anonymous user, along with the caption, "Wow, you know it happens, but when you actually hear it, it’s unbelievable... The labor movement is in bed with City Hall.”

Much of the conversation revolves around the subject of redistricting. Though the state of California now has an independent redistricting commission for federal and statewide offices, the city's process is still controlled by the mayor and the City Council, leading to all manner of political machinations and backbiting. The more powerful council members are typically able to draw districts that ensure their easy reelection, or the easy election of their preferred successor. For Latino politicians, that often means drawing districts with a heavily Latino majority.

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Though much of the backroom dealings during the last redistricting process were assumed, this audio recording confirms how vicious the process was. For example, in talking about the district held by Nithya Raman, a fairly new and progressive council member whose district was completely redrawn so as to be unrecognizable, Martinez says, "She is not our ally. She is not going to help us.”

By most outward appearances, LA City Hall is a friendly place. Garcetti used to refer to the political establishment as the "city family." Nearly every elected official is a Democrat, with the exception of John Lee, an independent. And while council members differ on a few policy questions — homelessness, for example — they often vote unanimously, even on contentious issues like the recent vote to end the city's eviction moratorium. But the leaked audio shows that the apparent conviviality is a façade.

"I’m old enough to remember when the City Council was all white, all old, all Republican and racist, almost to a person," Jaime Regalado, the former director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State LA, now retired, said. "The racial and gender and ethnic splits have been real, and they’ve grown with time. But in some ways, a lot of people that thought LA was beyond that. Not that they all get along all the time, but there’s a certain collegiate aspect to it, even in private. But this shows that collegiate aspect can be fragile, when other feelings are stronger."

The audio leak is that rare LA City Hall news story to be covered by the national press (including even CNN). Practically every leader in the city has felt the need to make their own statement condemning the racist language, from the police chief to the superintendent of public schools. While the first round of statements, issued on Sunday, condemned the racist and otherwise coarse language, many of them called for such vagaries as "accountability" but stopped short of demanding resignations. A second flurry of statements issued Monday took a harder line.

"Stepping down from the council would be the right response by these members in a moment that demands accountability and healing at a time of great pain and deep disappointment," Garcetti's second statement said.

Mall magnate and mayoral candidate Rick Caruso put out a second statement calling for the four council members to resign — though it initially spelled Cedillo's name wrong, calling him "Gill." Caruso's opponent, Congresswoman Karen Bass, called for resignations as well.

"Los Angeles must move in a new direction, and that is not possible unless the four individuals caught on that tape resign from their offices immediately," Bass said in a statement. "To move forward as a city, we must move past the politics of divide and conquer."

Martinez, in her second statement in which she resigned from the presidency, apologized: "I ask for forgiveness from my colleagues and from the residents of this city that I love so much. In the end, it is not my apologies that matter most; it will be the actions I take from this day forward. I hope that you will give me the opportunity to make amends."

De Leon's apology, issued Sunday, was somewhat more equivocal.

"I regret appearing to condone and even contribute to certain insensitive comments made about a colleague and his family in private,” he said in a statement, calling the comments "wholly inappropriate."

Cedillo, who initially told the Times “I don’t have a recollection of this conversation,” has also since apologized. In a statement issued Monday, he said, "While I did not engage in the conversation in question, I was present at times during this meeting last year. It is my instinct to hold others accountable when they use derogatory or racially divisive language. Clearly, I should have intervened."

Should all three council members resign from office, it would leave four out of 15 of the council seats vacant, represented by unelected caretakers, since the seat of Ridley-Thomas, who's about to go on trial for bribery, is currently being filled by a temporary replacement. It would in many ways leave the council shattered, its political balance upended.

"We’d be the laughing stock of the nation," said Regalado. "It would be a horrible situation."

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