LOS ANGELES — Two months after being embroiled in a racist scandal that shook public confidence in the Los Angeles government, disgraced city council member Kevin de León has refused calls to resign and is trying to rehabilitate his reputation as he faces a politically uncertain future.
As of Monday, de León, a former state lawmaker, is the only council member still resisting calls from President Joe Biden to step down. He continues to collect his nearly $229,000 annual salary — among the most lucrative salaries for city council members in the country.
Gil Cedillo, another council member implicated in the scandal over a leaked racial slur recording that emerged in October, disappeared from public view days after his disclosure but refused to resign. His term expired at 12:01 a.m. Monday after losing a re-election bid this year.
The continuing fallout from the racism scandal is one of the challenges the city’s new mayor, Democrat Karen Bass, will face when she takes office on Monday. Meanwhile, three other current or former council members have been charged or pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Deprived of his ability to participate in council committees and facing widespread pressure to resign, and after a prolonged absence from council meetings, de León maneuvered publicly and privately out of political purgatory, despite insults from his colleagues. who say they can’t work with him.
His situation deteriorated on Friday, when he got into a fight with an activist who heckled him during a holiday toy giveaway that was partly captured on video and posted to Twitter. The confrontation left the children present at the event in tears.
Council President Paul Krekorian, who called on de León to stand down, said in a statement that de León, one of his staff and a volunteer were attacked, which he said was intolerable. The Los Angeles Times reported that activists said de León was the attacker.
“This city has endured horrific division and toxicity for the past few months,” Krekorian said. “We must reject hate in all its forms and we must reject the atmosphere of bullying, intimidation and threats.”
De León appeared at his first council meeting since mid-October on Friday, sparking a chaotic protest between competing factions in the audience. A dozen protesters yelled at de León to leave the ornate bedroom, while his supporters chanted “Kevin, Kevin”.
Some council members walked out and the police kicked out two people, fearing they were fighting.
“Leave, Kevin! a protester shouted at de León. “That’s why these meetings must be closed.”
The scandal sparked the October resignations of City Council Speaker Nury Martinez and a powerful labor leader, Ron Herrera, as well as calls from Biden and other lawmakers for de León and others to step down.
The uproar stems from a leaked recording of rude and racist comments from a year-long meeting in which Martinez, Herrera, de León and Cedillo — all Latino Democrats — plotted to expand their political power at the expense of voters blacks in a district realignment the borders.
Reshuffling constituency lines once a decade can pit one group against another for political advantage in future elections.
The California Legislative Black Caucus said the recording “reveals an appalling effort to decentralize black voices during the critical redistricting process.” A long line of speakers at subsequent council meetings said it echoed the Jim Crow era and was a stark example of ‘anti-Blackness’.
De León repeatedly apologized but said he would not resign. He says he wants to continue working on homelessness, the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the threat of evictions for tenants in his neighborhood, which includes downtown Los Angeles and the heavily Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
There is no legal way for his colleagues to remove him – the board can only suspend a member when criminal charges are pending.
Krekorian, the council president, said “the only way we can begin to heal as a city is for Mr. de León to take responsibility for his actions, accept the consequences and step down.”
While de León largely stayed away from City Hall, he continued to quietly conduct business, including attending holiday events and meeting with officials about ongoing projects for the homelessness and problems of illegal dumping.
With his appearance at the council meeting on Friday, it is clear that he is trying to gradually retreat into the public sphere. Meanwhile, organizers behind an effort to recall him from office have been allowed to collect the petition signatures needed to qualify the proposal for the ballot.
Council members also received a series of letters from people identifying themselves as voters of de León, defending him and urging the council to let him return to office. They also asked the board to refrain from any additional sanctions, which are being considered and could include restricting funds from de León’s office.