By Ellie Yun
LOS ANGELES — In an anonymously leaked recording of a conversation from behind closed doors, three Los Angeles city councilmembers were caught making vulgar and offensive remarks while scheming to redraw council districts for political power.
This scandal prompted a state investigation of the matter while shedding light on potential internal weaknesses within the critical redistricting process. The audio revealed the councilmembers’ racially derogatory remarks, inflicting pain to marginalized groups and leading to a loss of trust in the political system in Los Angeles.
The roughly hour-long conversation, which took place in October 2021, was posted on the social media website Reddit during the run-up to November’s midterm elections on Oct. 9, 2022, after remaining private for almost a year. Mark Gonzalez, chair of Los Angeles County Democratic Party, believes that “it was blatantly obvious it was an insider job” targeting the federation president Ron Herrera.
Former Council President Nuny Martinez is heard dehumanizing the Black adopted son of Mike Bonin, fellow councilmember, as first reported and published by the Los Angeles Times. Seemingly unaware that the conversation was being taped, she calls Bonin’s son “an accessory” and a“little monkey,” while De Leon compares the handling of the child to that of a Louis Vuitton bag.
“Su negr—, like on the side,” said Martinez, using a demeaning Spanish diminutive term for a Black individual. Martinez is heard referring to Bonin a “little b-tch” and De Leon refers to him as the council’s “fourth Black member,” though he is white.
Martinez also mocks Oaxacans, who populate the LA neighborhood of Koreatown, in applying stereotypes to consider them as “little short dark people” and that she does not “know where these people are from [. . .], how they got here.” She adds “tan feos” — “they’re ugly” — to her list of remarks. The conversation also includes bigoted comments about Armenian, Jewish and other communities.
The members were thrust into the spotlight for their crude language during the blunt backroom discussion. By the Sunday following the Tuesday audio leak, three of Martinez’s city council colleagues and the Democratic Party of Los Angeles County called for her to resign. U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, former mentor of Martinez, suggested the same. The leak also became troublesome in terms of the upcoming Nov. 8 election, as candidates — some of which are endorsed by Martinez — must stake out positions.
The leaked audio sparked international disgust. The days following the leak of the tape were packed with protests and public outrage, including a march of hundreds of Oaxacan Angelenos demanding the resignation of the councilmembers. Two Black developers working on a downtown project declared they would no longer work with De León.
Bonin and his husband, Sean Arian, called on the three councilmembers to resign. “The entirety of the recorded conversation [. . .] displayed a repeated and vulgar anti-Black sentiment and a coordinated effort to weaken Black political representation in Los Angeles,” they expressed in a statement.
Political leaders and officials have spoken out to address this controversy as well. Mayor Eric Garcetti responded to the situation, noting that,“stepping down from the Council would be the right response [. . .] in a moment that demands accountability and healing time of great pain and deep disappointment.” On October 11th, President Joe Biden also called for the resignation of Martinez, De León and Herrera.
The conversation highlights the councilmembers’ frustration with proposed maps from Los Angeles’ 21-member redistricting commission. In this context, Martinez has released a statement apologizing for her remarks, stating that “in a moment of intense frustration and anger, [she] let the situation get the best of [her]”.
Martinez has since resigned from her position on the council.
On the other hand, the two other council members involved in the conversation refused to resign despite the council removing much of their power and dismissing them from a variety of council committee assignments.
De León confessed that he has “failed in [his] leadership” and wishes for forgiveness from the Los Angeles community for the severe damage that his harmful words may have inflicted, yet has told KCBS-TV that he will not back down to resign. In the interview, De León explained that he hopes to continue working on unemployment, homelessness and other problems within his district.
The conversation also offers a rare look into the behind-the-scenes maneuvers of the redistricting process. The enduring American scandal of political gerrymandering, by which voting districts are redrawn to protect the political power of individual incumbents, is highly divisive.
By nature, redistricting can inhibit rivalries between identity groups due to a limited number of seats. The California Legislative Black Caucus said the audio reveals an “appalling effort to decentralize Black voices during the critical redistricting process”.
The three councilmembers have lost much or all of their support, as many Southern Californians are disgusted by the rhetoric utilized by these Latino leaders and supposed liberal councilmembers. LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, emphasizes that “people are not going to let this go.”
Asking for forgiveness can be part of the acknowledgment and learning process. However, resigning must come first, since they are ultimately unfit to legislate for the diverse city that they claim to represent.
The scandal may indirectly stimulate the movement toward redistricting reform.
The audio leak also serves as a learning opportunity for political leaders and organizations to immediately and sincerely acknowledge their wrongdoings while explicitly naming the racial harm they have caused. Clear policies concerning racial misconduct must be included upfront during the leadership onboarding process as well as steadily reinforced.
The situation demands accountability from these councilmembers, who have deeply disappointed Los Angelenos in the mass. Restoring the trust and confidence of the groups targeted by such racially derogatory statements will be a long and arduous process.
Still, leaders must stand before the people and learn the meaningful restorative actions they can take in the future.