The Times: Essential news from the L.A. Times

The leaked tape that upended L.A. politics

Episode Summary

A secret audio recording caught Los Angeles Latino councilmembers belittling colleagues and constituents in a racist manner. So what's next?

Episode Notes

This week, the Los Angeles City Council made national headlines for all the wrong reasons. In a closed-door meeting, City Council President Nury Martinez made racist and disparaging remarks about colleagues to fellow council members, Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo and a well known labor leader.

The subsequent fallout has upended L.A. politics just before a crucial mayoral election. So now what? Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times reporter Benjamin Oreskes

More reading:

L.A. council members made racist comments in leaked audio. Read our full coverage

Breaking down crucial moments in the racist leaked recording of L.A. councilmembers

The fall of Nury Martinez: A blunt talker undone by her words


Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano:  This week, the Los Angeles City Council made national headlines for all the wrong reasons.

News clip: In the wake of that explosive, leaked audio that we've been talking about all morning long there were several racist comments in that conversation where you did hear the council president talking to two other council members.

News Clip: A leaked recording of racist comments resulting in the Los Angeles City Council president's resignation also provides a look into city hall's racial rivalries. 

Gustavo: In a closed-door meeting, City Council President Nury Martinez made racist and disparaging remarks about colleagues to fellow council members Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo and a well-known labor leader.

They were trying to figure out a way to draw City Council districts in order to keep and expand Latino political power.

But the conversation quickly devolved into crass and vulgar comments about Oaxacans in Koreatown, anti-Blackness, Armenians, Jews and even more revolting language pointed at City Councilman Mike Bonin’s son, who’s Black.

Nury Martinez: There's this white guy with this little Black kid who's misbehaving, este niño has no…. He's…they're not doing, Yeah. No, they're not doing. The kid is bouncing off the effing walls on the float, practically tipping it over. 

Gustavo: The conversation happened back in October 2021, but this recording wasn't released until just a few weeks ago when it appeared on Reddit.

The political fallout over the leaked audio…  has been swift.

News clip: Nury Martinez has resigned now as president of the L.A. City Council after making racist remarks. 
News clip: So she has resigned from this very powerful position. But it is important to point out that she is still a member of the City Council, at least at this point.

Gustavo: But some say Martinez’s resignation from her leadership post isn’t even close to being enough.

The chorus of people calling for all three council members to step down from the Los Angeles City Council completely…even includes President Biden.    

And it just keeps getting louder and louder.

L.A. City Council recording: Shame on all of you! You work for the people. We pay your salaries. Don’t ever forget it! Resign now! Resign now! Shame on you! Na na na na, na na na na. Hey hey hey, goodbye! 

Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times,” Essential News from the L.A. Times. It's Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022.  

Today, how an audio leak upended L.A. politics a month before a critical election… and cast an uncomfortable spotlight on racism in City Hall. 

Gustavo: My L.A. Times colleague Ben Oreskes has been working on this story along with some of our other colleagues. Ben, welcome to “The Times.”

Ben Oreskes: Hey, man. How you doing?

Gustavo: I'm good, man, I’m good, thanks for asking. Hope you’re good too, man, a lot of work how you know. So… we heard some of what was discussed on this tape, but what are some of the other lowlights and the context behind all of this?

Ben: The best way I can think about it, it's that sense that, you know there's a smoke-filled room where they're making these choices. And you know that it's this incredibly crass way that they often think about things. But this is that moment where we get to see and hear and almost feel like smell what is happening inside of that room.

Crosstalk: If you wanna cut a deal and if you wanna, if you wanna make like boss moves, I would go after the airport. Go get the airport from his little brother. Mm-hmm. That little bitch Bonin. 

Ben: All of this is being had in the context of just the politics of that moment. That was last year in October, almost exactly a year ago. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas had just been indicted. They're in the midst of this huge fight over redistricting, and they're all meeting together inside the L.A. County Federation of Labor. And what we hear is a discussion of redistricting and a whole lot else.

Crosstalk: I get what we have to do, right? Just massage to create districts that benefit you all. And the future. Yep, the future. But we gotta figure out Mark's seat too. Mm-hmm. If the African Americans look at this now that he might or may not be suspended, I don't know what's gonna happen.

Ben: And obviously there are just all of these terribly racist and politically incendiary things said by Nury Martinez, former council president... now former council president, councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, along with the head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, Ron Herrera. But there's also this conversation about politics in the city. And so you have these observations being made, and then on top of them you have these incredibly racist remarks about Mike Bonin's son, who is Black.

Crosstalk: I go, I go, What is with Bonin? I said, Bonin thinks he's black cat guy. Don't think he's black. I go, he thinks he's Black. I draw the same thing. This kid is.

Ben Oreskes: Basically we hear Nury Martinez use a Spanish term calling him a little monkey.

Nury Martinez: The kid is bouncing off the effing walls on the float, practically tipping it over. There's nothing you can do to control him, parece changuito.
Nury Martinez ADD CLIP: We're all looking at each other ‘cuz we're the three women on the floor. Like who's gonna, this kid's gonna tip us over. Yeah. ‘Cause he literally hanging on the rails. Well, you can't let him let him off cuz the spectators will beat his ass. Yeah, they're raising  him like a little white kid, which I was like, this kid needs a beatdown. Like, let me, let me take him around the corner and then I'll bring him back. Yeah. Me entiendes? Yeah. … So anyways, getting back to redistricting.

Ben Oreskes: And then also hearing them sort of talk about this kid as if he were a political prop. And one member, Kevin de León, sort of comparing him to one of Nury's handbags.

Crosstalk: It's an accessory when we do the MLK parade… Then when Nury brings the Goyard bag or the, the Louis Vuitton, es un negrito, like on the side. Verdad?

Ben Oreskes: That whole conversation kind of makes your eyes pop out of your head, considering this is a person who – they have vehement political disagreements with, to be clear and don't even like him personally, I, I can tell you. But his son? It's crazy.

Gustavo: Yeah, he was just a toddler at the time. And so you mentioned that the conversation happened a year ago, and we're obviously just learning about it when The Times broke the story over this past weekend, but what do we know about how it was recorded and who leaked it?

Ben: Well, we don't know a whole lot, frankly. We know it was posted on Reddit and then taken down. We don't know the Reddit user's name. The L.A. County Federation of Labor sent us a letter early Sunday morning saying this conversation was recorded “in violation of California's privacy and recording laws on L.A. County Federation of Labor property.” And if we published it, it is “condoning this legal content.” Obviously, we thought that ridiculous argument and went with it. But what we do know is that it's clear that the person who had initially posted it has some gripes with the labor movement in the city. They posted in their original message, “the labor movement is in bed with City Hall. You know, it happens, but when you actually hear it, it's unbelievable.” I think we all sort of had a similar feeling. But yeah, so that is where much of our reporting now is taking us. We're digging into this. But we know that it occured about exactly a year ago. 

Gustavo: Nury Martinez, ex-president of the L.A. City Council. Her comments are what's drawing the most attention. But who is she? What's her story?

Ben: She's a fascinating character. 

Ben Oreskes: She is a child of the San Fernando Valley and not just the San Fernando Valley, but the northeast San Fernando Valley, which it’s one of the poorest parts of the city. And it's an area that has transformed over the last 30, 40 years. I actually had lunch with Nury a week ago Saturday, before this tape came out, in her neck of the woods at a Mexican restaurant. We had micheladas together. And we were there because Nury had been a big endorser of the mayoral candidate Karen Bass. And I was out there to talk to her about why so many people in her district were supporting Rick Caruso. But in the course of that conversation, I also got a real insight into her. I learned about her family. She's the child of immigrants, both of whom came to America in the ’70s. Her father was deported the year she was born and snuck back in, came back into America. Nury is a member of a very powerful sort of political machine that includes Sen. Alex Padilla, Luz Rivas, Tony Cárdenas. Many of them went to high school together at San Fernando High. But they are all very connected to the unions. She worked in activism, particularly in environmental activism. She was later a member of the school board and then in, I think it was 2013 as elected to the City Council, becoming City Council president in 2020. Her whole worldview is shaped by where she is from and who she is. So much about her personality is about the sense that her communities, working-class communities, are forgotten and that white people don't pay attention to them and they're not part of the conversation nor the policy considerations of the city. And we saw that most in how she talked about homelessness as something that was afflicting communities of color. And I just think that that is such a good insight into her worldview.

Gustavo: And what about the other people who were in the recording? Council members Gil Cedillo and also Kevin de León and L.A. County Labor Fed President Ron Herrera. What should we know about them, and what were they saying most of the time?

Ben: Kevin de León, former mayoral candidate, lost in the primary, former state Senate pro tem and ran against Dianne Feinstein, in a Senate race. Had been a very left of center Democrat. Ran for mayor and lost, but very powerful figure in the city and state. Many thought he would run for a different statewide office in the future. Gil Cedillo, a former labor leader, had represented much of Westlake area and Highland Park along with Chinatown. He actually lost his primary in June, and that is sort of interesting because it's discussed and they really underestimate his opponent. And we sort of hear them talking and they go, “Who is that person?” speaking of Eunisses Hernandez, who kind of spanked him in that primary. Also  interesting about Cedillo is he had recently endorsed Rick Caruso, sort of was one of the few elected leaders and one of the few Latinos to back Caruso's candidacy. And then finally there's Ron Herrera, who ran the LA County Federation of Labor until he stepped down over all of this earlier this week. And he’s arguably the most powerful of all of these people. He runs like sort of one of the largest sort of umbrella groups of unions in the city. He is someone who has a huge amount of political power, and a lot of that political power is born out of the money that the County Fed will put to back outside groups who are supporting candidates. So we have seen them be huge backers of the mayoral candidate, Karen Bass, and this support takes the shape in one: money for ads, but also quite literally getting and coordinating carpenters or nurses to go out and knock on doors and much of that political organization and know how is stems from the unions in our city.

Gustav:  Yeah. Herrera just resigned as president of the L.A. Labor Federation. And there's a lot of outrage and disgust, but what about the political fallout? What else is there? You mentioned Nury resigning from being council president, but what else? 

Ben: I think even I was surprised how on Sunday, three members of the City Council called for her to step down. But by Monday and Tuesday…that number just started ballooning really quickly… and people started demanding everyone involved to step down – not just Nury, but all three of the City Council members and the labor leader.   I've kind of lost count, frankly. People we've heard from. President Biden…senators… The mayor… support for these folks is evaporating with each hour and it's a fast-moving situation. The city is in a state of crisis as a result of this. Certainly our governing institutions are. People are in shock. These are all brash political figures, but I don't think people saw them necessarily as racist. And certainly did not expect to hear them talking about one of their colleagues’ kids. And it's really causing a lot of soul searching, I think, among elected officials, staffers, activist organizations. 

Gustav: Coming up after the break, how the leak gave people an inside look into an important but frequently ignored part of politics: redistricting.

Gustavo: Ben, the leaked audio, I mean, there's a lot of it, but ultimately the conversation was all about how to strategize, about how to draw new council districts in Los Angeles. So what is the process for redistricting in L.A. and why is it such a contentious issue?

Ben: Yeah, so last year a redistricting commission was brought together, I believe it had 21 members. And each council member got to appoint someone to this commission. And the goal of it was to create maps essentially that define council districts for the next decade. And a lot went into that sort of consideration and a lot of questions of demographics of sort of what we think of as assets, important civic institutions, moneymakers for the city, job creators, things like stadiums, universities, tourist destinations. And the goal is to create places that are equitable and reflect the nature of the voting age population within the city. The conversation reflects an intense frustration with how that process was going last year.

Gustavo: And what's interesting to me is that this conversation, yeah, it exposed how politicians try to secure and consolidate power. But it was Latino politicians complaining that Black politicians have too much power in Los Angeles and that white politicians are helping them basically push down Latinos. But Latinos are now the majority in Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles. So what exactly were, uh, Martinez, all four of them, complaining about?

Ben: I wanna read you a quote from the transcripts. They're talking about strategizing, about redistricting.

Ron Herrera: I'm hoping that you guys can all figure this redistricting out ’cause I just need you elected. I just need you and then they're f–ing with you? 

Ben: And Kevin de León at one point goes…

Kevin de León: It's not us,

Ben: “It's not us. It's for Latino strength for the foreseeable future.”

Kevin de León: It's for Latino strength for the foreseeable future. Right?

Ben: And I sort of thought that encapsulates what they were doing there. They were thinking about how to create areas of the city that will firmly entrench the political power that they had scratched and fought for over the last decades. That process comes at the expense of someone. And again, I, I don't think anyone takes issue with the idea that you're strategizing about politics and about a process like redistricting. It's the level of vitriol, uh, racism, that accompanied it. And the way that they felt that this could only occur if it came at the expense of Black populations in the city. And I think a lot of the anger you have seen today is a result of that as well.

Crosstalk: It's real simple. You got a hundred people, right? 52 of them are Mexicanos. I feel pretty good about it. I feel pretty good about my chances of beating your ass. 25 are Black. And the 25 Blacks are shouting….But they shout like they are 250. Yeah. When there's a hundred of us, like… sounds like there's 10 of us. 

Gustavo: So how were Martinez, De León and Cedillo, then – and Herrera, for that matter – talking about taking advantage of redistricting?

Ben: Yeah, they were very frustrated with the proposals for sort of taking economic assets like Van Nuys Airport or USC and how they were being pulled out of heavily Latino districts. So this one of these conversations, the one about Bonin's son, happened as they were discussing a fight that was being had last year between Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Curren Price, two Black members of the City Council. But Curren Price’s district is heavily Latino, and they worried that the more that was taken out of that district and the more Price’s district, which represents a lot of South L.A. along the 110, the more that district reached into downtown L.A. it would come at the expense of Latinos and dilute their power. And this produced the vitriol and the coarse and racist discussion about Mike Bonin. And within this conversation more broadly, you heard a real sense that they wanted to hold on to power by any means necessary.

Gustavo:  Yeah, in the leaked conversation, there's all this talk about, quote, assets.

Nury Martinez: And so if you wanna talk about Latino districts, what kind of districts are you trying to create? Because you're taking away our, our assets. So you're just gonna create poor Latino districts with nothing? 

Gustavo: So what assets was Martinez talking about, and what is that importance to them?

Ben: The assets they were discussing were things like Sepulveda Basin, where there will be events for the Olympics held. And how important was that to stay in her district or the one next to her.

Nury Martinez: The basin is the middle of the valley. Oh, OK. That's between the 405 and the 101. That huge f–ing piece of land. I'm working out a deal with the Rams. I'm working out a deal with L.A. 2028. The mayor's involved. I just got off the phone with the, the, the owner of the Rams, Stan and Kevin, on Friday. Um, and I'm watching all this s–. Right. I'm like, hmm. 

Ben: Or the airport, which Nury said that Marqueece Harris-Dawson should go talk to her little bitch boy, Mike Bonin, about taking it and…  It’s worth noting that Bonin is gay. So these comments about him being a "little bitch boy" or treating his son like a Louis Vuitton purse really are homophobic, as well, and offensive. 

Nury Martinez: Go take the airport from Bonin.. Mm-hmm. Andalé! You want to do that. I, I let's roll. Have the commissioner put that s– out there.

Ben: And again, we're seeing just know, to quote our former president, locker room talk, be used in the context of a real political fistfight. And it then escalates into this incredibly racist talk about people's kids, or any number of other things. But the focus of this discussion was about creating districts that had things that benefited Latinos and benefited unions.

Gustavo: Yeah. Another big controversy that came out of this leaked audio was this entire conversation about Koreatown. So why were they talking about Koreatown and what did they say?

Ben: To step back, Koreatown is one of the densest parts of the city. It has a huge number of voters, and it's sort of split up in various different kind of weird ways. Nithya Raman, who was fighting at that time to ensure her Hollywood Hills district was not moved to the West Valley, really wanted to get Koreatown for her district. That's because Nithya has been a huge advocate for renters and there are an immense number of renters in that community. And while Koreatown is named after a huge population of people in the city – Koreans – there also are a lot of Latinos who live there. And during this conversation, Martinez is quoted as saying it serves us to not give her all of Koreatown.  

Nury Martinez: Because if you do, that solidifies her renters district and that is not a good thing for any of us. You have to keep her on the fence. Yeah.

Ben: They then sort of get into what is Koreatown and it becomes this sort of catty and racist conversation about Oaxacans. 

Crosstalk: Yeah, that's called K-Town. I see a lot of little short dark people. Yeah, puro Oaxacan, Oaxacan Koreans, not even like Kevin, little ones. I dunno. People I was like, I don't know what village they came, how they got here, but… tan feos. I get what we have to do, right? Just massage to create districts that benefit you all. And the future.

Gustavo Arellano: So you have three powerful Latino council members talking about how best to redraw districts in their favor and using anti-Black, anti-Indigenous comments and language in doing so. The racism is outrageous enough. But why do you think there's so much anger about all of this? Like the anger that I'm sensing is goes beyond just the racism.

Ben: Totally. These are folks who have worked for decades to carve out political power in this city and create influence and wealth from it. And this process that they created, they pushed forward with a redistricting commission, which was something that was relatively new, was threatening to undo that. And you know, at one point, Kevin de León says something like, We've created a Frankenstein, something we can't control. And again, like these are the unvarnished thoughts of politicians being politicians. I think much of the anger, though, stems from this idea that this is a group of people who has not had a lot of representation, and that representation is finally coming. We have a, we have a Latino senator. We have a Latino member of the Cabinet who, a U.S. Cabinet who was a former state official here. We have a Latino City Council president – until Monday. This is new. This is a relatively new thing, to see this much power for this population. They do not want to give that up. They wanna see it grow and they wanna see the power of unions grow. So I think that's where a lot of that visceral-ness and emotion comes from.

Gustavo: More after the break.

Gustavo: Ben, Los Angeles, it's a city with a long history of racial tensions. This year we marked the 30th anniversary of the L.A. riots, but what we heard from Martinez, Cedillo, De León, the whole conversation also with Herrera – how much of it is a reflection of where L.A. stands right now on race?

Ben: I feel like you're in a better position to reflect on that than I am, man. Take that question for yourself.

Gustavo: I, I, I should answer it. Sure. I…you know, what strikes me the most is that there’s groups, individuals, who have been fighting for so long to do Black and brown unity and to try to get us past those, like, petty fights of the past and get us to a better place. And you see this and – those people are so dispirited and, frankly, so pissed off. But what, what also strikes me though is just how unified the derision is against those folks. This all of the, I mean there's so many problems to deal with, but there is that hope that's like, wow, this is actually a moment where L.A. instead of where people are trying to stoke those flames, maybe this is a way to say like, we're not with this anymore. I mean, I definitely see it with younger Latinos, you know, like Eunisses, who beat Gil Cedillo, who has been calling out anti-Blackness in the Latino community, and that next generation. So it's like, I'm glad people are as angry as they are.

Ben: I would add one thing that I picked up in this. I'm a relative newcomer to this city. I've lived here for like seven years.

Gustavo: You're a Yankees fan. 

Ben: I'm a Yankees fan. You remind me every time I come on this podcast. But during this recorded conversation, Kevin de León keeps saying about Mike Bonin as they're saying these racist things about his kid, “He's from Massachusetts, he's from Massachusetts.” You know, Mike Bonin has lived here for decades. And he worked for tons of political leaders in California. There's also a measure of gatekeeping, I think, about California and what is L.A. and who represents it. And much of that I think stems from a well-founded feeling of being excluded for so long. But this is a city that is evolving and changing and new people showing up all the time. And I think that so much of this conversation that we hear is the most blunt discussion of how to preserve what people have gained and, and that is something that I can't get past or, like, I just keep coming back to.

Gustavo: And this conversation, it leaked just weeks before a important election, not just nationally, but especially in Los Angeles. So what are going to be any potential consequences for that?

Ben: Oh, it's such a good question. I could see it cutting in any number of different ways. Uh, let's just lay it out. You know, Karen Bass has been endorsed by Nury Martinez; the entire labor movement, basically, of the city, with the exception of the police and fire unions. But Rick Caruso has been supported by Gil Cedillo. And very quickly on Sunday, we heard from Rick saying: This sums up what I've been saying about this city and how messed up and broken and screwed up the culture is of it. It's rotten to the core. And I, a billionaire mall owner, of all things, am here to fix it.” I think it could really end up fueling that anti-incumbent sense that we all hear on the streets. People mad about homelessness. At the same time, though, there's a world where a unifying voice, a person like Karen Bass, who is known as a creator of coalitions…

Gustavo: Yeah.

Ben: …could maybe be that sort of person who can take the temperature down and what people want right now. It should be stated that both Caruso and Bass on Monday called for all of these people to step down. But we're less than a month from election day. So, you know, I'll be interested to see, does Rick Caruso cut an ad that includes audio of Nury Martinez, along with a photo of her and Karen Bass? I'll be interested to see how Karen interacts with the Latino community. So I'm not sure yet where this goes. It's just, this was a Scud missile landing at City Hall and, and sending shrapnel in 88 different directions.

Gustavo: Finally, Ben, whether or not these three council members step down over the leaked audio, the council, their colleagues are going to have to do a lot of work, to earn back the trust and respect of basically everyone in Los Angeles. How lasting is the damage from this incident?

Ben: Uh, God, uh, I mean very, very long-lasting. I mean, we're gonna have a new mayor. We're gonna have a new City Council president, we're gonna have several new members of the City Council. If these people step down, it could really change the sort of coalitions that exist left and right on the council. If we have a special election that needs to occur in these places, if these people do step down. So, you know it's like we don't even know who's gonna be on the City Council by the end of the week. I mean, there's real, real anger and I don't know that her simply stepping down as president placates that and fends it off.

Gustavo: Ben, thank you so much for this conversation and for the work that you and our colleagues are doing.

Ben: Thanks for having me, man. Good job.

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode at “The Times,” Essential News from the L.A. Times. Kasia Broussalian, Ashlea Brown and Kinsee Morlan were the jefas on this episode and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers Jazmin Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. And hey, we're building a Dia de los Muertos audio altar this year and would love to include your memories of your loved ones. Call (619) 800-0717 and leave us a voicemail with your own ofrendas.

Tell us who you are, where you live, and then tell us a great story about a friend, a family member, someone dear to you who has passed on and joined the ancestors. We wanna air an entire episode with those stories around Day of the Dead. Thanks in advance. And again, the number is (619) 800-0717. I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Friday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.