One of the grossest elements of Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez’s appalling rant — captured anonymously on tape, then published by the Los Angeles Times — was her apparent disdain for Mexicans with an indigenous background.
She used the Spanish term “tan feos” or “so ugly” to describe the “little short dark people” she sees in Koreatown, which now is home to many Oaxacans. The tape depicts the council leader complaining about new political maps that the city’s redistricting commission proposed and devising ways to rejigger them in her favor.
Democratic council members Kevin de León, the former state Senate president pro tempore, and Gil Cedillo, also a former member of the Legislature, attended the closed-door meeting. One of the state’s union leaders, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, also was there. These are powerful people.
The outrage has spread across the city for obvious reasons. The incident also spotlighted the vulgarity of a political process that is rooted in race and identity rather than more ennobling democratic principles. After the news broke, Martinez offered one of the most disingenuous apologies imaginable.
“In a moment of intense frustration and anger, I let the situation get the best of me and I hold myself accountable for these comments. For that I am sorry,” she said. “The context of this conversation was concern over the redistricting process and concern about the potential negative impact it might have on communities of color.”
Making an off-color comment in a moment of anger is one thing, but repeatedly spewing epithets against a variety of groups over a long discussion is another. Trying to defend herself as expressing “concern” about the impact of maps on “communities of color” as she mocks people’s color is otherworldly.
Martinez resigned from her leadership post and took a leave of absence, and then on Wednesday finally resigned from the council.
Martinez was the main motormouth. I did not hear any objections on the audio, but I occasionally heard laughter in the background.
“I didn’t step up to stop them and I will have to bear the burden of that cross moving forward,” Herrera said, although he later resigned. Cedillo initially said he didn’t recall the conversation, then later apologized for what transpired.
Nevertheless, it’s important to review the revealing nature of these comments. Martinez said Councilman Mike Bonin, who is white, treated his Black son like an “accessory,” referred to the boy as “parece changuito“ (“like a monkey”), complained that Bonin was raising him “like a little white kid,” and added that the boy needed a beat-down. That’s appalling.
“De León appeared to compare Bonin’s handling of his child to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag,” according to the Los Angeles Times report. In his mea culpa for “falling short” of expectations, de León said he regretted “appearing to condone and even contribute to certain insensitive comments made about a colleague and his family in private.” Yet, it’s hard to give him a pass, especially given his past statements about racial injustice.
Twitter was having sport with this de León tweet from 2020: “Institutional racism fomented by White Supremacy is a deep wound POC are forced to confront every day.” Perhaps the best starting point: Avoid participating in wound-inflicting discussions — and try not to use one’s institutional power to overturn voting maps.
Martinez obviously has issues with many groups. She said the judíos (Spanish for Jews) “cut their deal with South L.A.” and “are gonna screw everybody else.” She prattled about the Armenians, who are a large Los Angeles voting bloc. Cedillo said this about an Armenian man whose name eluded the assorted brain trusts: “It ends in ‘I-A-N,’ I bet you.” (READ MORE: The Left’s Anti-Semitism Problem)
The Armenian National Committee of America Western Region captured the main point in its statement: “The statements made by the individuals in question not only betray their mission to serve all people, regardless of their identity, but explicitly demonstrate that they hold no regard for the diverse communities of Los Angeles.”
Exactly. Politics is a winner-takes-all sport, so when politicians see the world through a group lens, they forget their mission to serve all people. But there are other problems.
One of the state’s top labor leaders was working with top city council members to divvy up districts in a way that boosts not only the voting power of that particular Latino bloc — but union power. The Labor Federation tried to stop the Times from publishing the audio, although it did issue a tough statement condemning the conversation.
The only good news from this ugly episode is that the outrage is widespread. There are myriad calls for Cedillo (who lost his reelection bid) and de León to also resign from the council. But will anyone in the Los Angeles establishment realize that the problem isn’t just bad actors, but rather a political system that’s too focused on ethnic politics?
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.