The most entertaining local news story this week was a puff piece in the Sacramento Bee about one of California’s most-powerful politicians, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles. De León is of interest to readers outside this state in that he is setting himself up to play a high-profile role combating the Trump administration, especially on issues related to immigration. You’ll likely be hearing more about him.
The article tells “The untold story of how Kevin Leon became Kevin de León.” He added the “de” and now has an accent mark above the “o,” for reasons that will soon become obvious. But the story reads like a piece of damage control. De León testified last month at a Capitol hearing that “Half of my family would be eligible for deportation under the (Trump) executive order, because they got a false Social Security card.”
As I wrote for the Spectator recently, he also downplayed how concerning it is if illegal immigrants engage in identity theft, which is was what bothered me and other commentators, given that using a false Social Security number is not a victimless crime. The Senate president agreed to an interview with the newspaper after it asked him about his name. It’s a minor-seeming story, but highlights what’s wrong in the state Capitol’s fetid world of identity politics.
De León often is described as a Mexican-American. A Los Angeles Times profile of him after he grabbed the top Senate spot in 2014 described him as the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in Tijuana, Los Angeles, and a San Diego barrio. “What kind of crappy things can I say about Kevin de León that every Republican candidate for president has not already said about every other Mexican?” joked the California Republican Party chairman during a “roast” last year.
In reality, de León was born in Los Angeles as Kevin Alexander Leon. His birth certificate, the Bee story explains, describes his dad as an ethnically Chinese 40-year-old who was born in Guatemala. His mother was born in Guatemala, also. De León doesn’t know the background of his grandparents. As he relates the story, he was a University of California at Santa Barbara student and had an awakening after a classmate noted that he didn’t have a father.
That led to internal “who am I?” questions. “From that point on, he said, he began writing ‘de’ in front of his last name, ‘thinking that I would somehow connect with my father.’ Adding two letters ‘was never a stretch,’ de León said, because ‘de’ means ‘of’ in Spanish.” He used the new name with the accent mark ever since, but never changed it on legal documents. The story notes that de León “identifies strongly with Mexican culture.”
Politicians love to tell all sorts of stories to burnish their reputations among their constituents. Usually, they are of the “rags to riches” sort about how they walked 10 miles barefooted through the snow as they headed to school — all for the chance to better themselves and serve the people. Candidates have been known to use their Latina maiden name, for instance, as a way to appeal to ethnically minded voters. It shows, however, how fixated California Democrats have become on race and ethnicity issues.
De León’s mom came to the United States through Mexico and he “was raised in a blended family in a culturally Mexican neighborhood,” as the Bee reported. But his background became an issue after his comments about half his family being eligible for deportation. He has walked back those comments and now says he wasn’t referring to his present family — but to issues from the past. So the senator has been caught, it seems, overstating things a bit.
Sadly, despite his professed concern for the downtrodden, de León has been no friend of education reform for minority kids. He spent five years working for the California Teachers’ Association opposing school-voucher efforts. And he was a backer of Proposition 58 in 2016, which is bringing back the bilingual-education programs that were quashed by voters in 1998 with Proposition 227. Prop. 227 was stunningly successful in improving English proficiency through English immersion. But Prop. 58 passed after it was sold to the public as something that would promote bilingualism, rather than what it really is: something that allows schools to put immigrant kids in Spanish-language ghettoes again.
Sadly, that initiative showed that ethnic-fixated identity politics are back in vogue at the state Capitol and de León is a chief practitioner. Two years ago, for instance, legislators passed a resolution condemning Gov. Pete Wilson and Proposition 187, which denied public benefits to illegal immigrants. That proposition passed in 1994 and was never enforced — and Wilson finished his term as governor in 1999. It was just an ugly effort to open 20-year-old wounds and stir up base voters for that year’s midterm elections. It was a grotesque and divisive act of symbolism. I’d never seen Republicans in the Capitol so angry before.
That’s the same year de León ascended to his current position. Typically, Senate leaders celebrate their new position with a short ceremony in the Senate chambers and then it’s back to business. But de León held a $50,000 bash, paid for by the California Latino Caucus Foundation (and funded by special interests), at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
As the Bee pointed out in a scathing editorial, de León also justified the gala by saying it’s in the district he represents, “but Disney Hall and this camera-ready event may as well have been in Fiji to the average Angeleno, let alone the working-class folks who cannot afford even the cheap seats at Disney Hall.” It was quite a show for a man taking over a Senate plagued by scandal after the conviction of a Democratic senator and corruption indictments of two others. The other big justification was that de León was the first Latino Senate president since the 1883.
The fact that Kevin de León — KDL as he is often called — adjusted his name doesn’t change anything of substance. But it should remind the rest of us of the noxiousness of identity politics. I don’t care about anyone’s ethnic background and I enjoy our state’s polyglot culture. But it would be nice if politicians aiming to stand up to Donald Trump’s divisiveness hadn’t spent their careers sowing their own form of division.
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