LOS ANGELES – The effort by three Latino politicians to maximize their influence in Los Angeles backfired after a leaked recording of their meeting exposed crude and, at times, racist banter that has already led to one city councilmember's resignation and could have broader legal and political consequences.
If the other two councilmembers heed calls to step down, their constituents will have lost some of their most powerful leaders and a state investigation into their private meeting could lead to criminal charges and undo efforts to draw districts in their favor.
Pressure mounted Thursday on Gil Cedillo and Kevin de Leon to resign a day after former council President Nury Martinez stepped down for comparing another colleague’s Black son to a monkey, belittling Mexicans from the state of Oaxaca and making crass remarks about Armenians and Jews.
Acting City Council President Mitch O’Farrell canceled Friday’s scheduled meeting, saying members couldn’t conduct business until the two step down.
The recording from a year ago of the three speaking with a labor leader revealed a rare glimpse of behind-the-scenes maneuvering during the politically charged process of redrawing political boundaries every decade.
Aside the from the shocking and salty dialog, the unusual element was that the conversation was recorded and aired publicly, said Sara Sadhwani, a politics professor at Pomona College and member of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission that draws district boundaries for congressional, legislative and other state-level races.
“What we hear in those tapes is classic backroom negotiations of redistricting," Sadhwani said. "We hear politicians who are not looking out for the interests of their constituents but are looking out for the interests of themselves towards reelection ... drawing districts in such a way that their friends can win seats as well. It’s the worst kind of abuse of power."
Whether it crossed the line into criminal activity or results in civil action, possibly leading to the redrawing of district boundaries, will depend on what Attorney General Rob Bonta’s investigation finds.
Bonta did not mention what type of crime may have been committed. But Gregory Totten, chief executive officer of the California District Attorneys Association, said it could focus on whether the politicians had a conflict of interest that influenced their actions.
Totten and Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who was a member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, said criminal charges would be less likely than an order to draw new maps for districts.
Investigators could look into whether the rights of a particular racial or ethnic group were diluted in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
In the recording, the issue of race frequently surfaced.
Latinos, who make up nearly half the city's population, only had four — or just over a quarter — of the 15 seats on the council at the time. Black people, who make up less than 10 percent of the population have three — a fifth — of the seats.
De Leon says Bonin, who is white, is like the “fourth Black” on the council and implied he wouldn't stand by Latinos.
“He’ll never say a (expletive) word about us," de Leon said.
The group discussed how to fill the seat held by Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Black member facing federal corruption charges, who was eventually suspended by the council.
Martinez said “the African Americans look at this as a hostile takeover” if they appointed an ally.
“The one who will support us is Heather Hutt,” said Cedillo, referring to the Black woman who eventually was picked to fill Ridley-Thomas' seat.
Hutt has joined other members calling for Cedillo and de Leon to resign. She said in a statement that she was unaware of the conversation the three had and said she was legitimately chosen for the council.
“The audio tapes released this week lay out a dangerous plot to weaken Black political representation across Los Angeles County,” Hutt said. “Let me be clear — I am a Black woman, not a pawn.”
Levinson said the recording gives the impression they are explicitly drawing lines on the basis of race. She said she would not be surprised to see a lawsuit designed to throw out the maps.
“It’s all boiling down to: Did they draw the lines to hurt Black voting power?” Levinson said. “What Bonta is ultimately going to have to determine is … (are they) essentially saying, ‘We want to make it difficult for African American voters to elect the candidate of their choosing.’ ”
Challenges to district maps drawn through a partisan process are not uncommon in other states, and the U.S. Supreme Court just last week heard arguments on a challenge out of Alabama.
But the Attorney General's office and experts could not point to other cases in California since voters in 2008 adopted the independent citizens redistricting commission that has drawn the maps after the last two censuses.
Local jurisdictions operate under different rules.
The city of Los Angeles has a commission appointed by councilmembers to draw up maps that can then be approved or rejected by the council. The recording was of a discussion over frustration with the proposed maps.
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer has called on City Council to call a special election in the spring with an amendment to redraw the lines for the 2024 elections, independent of influence by city officials.
“This ultimately is about political power in this city,” Feuer said. “The credibility of those (redistricting map) lines, and the power those lines reflect, will be tainted now given this conversation for sure, until there is some substitute provided.”
The council, meanwhile, has been thrown into chaos by the scandal. Raucous protesters shut down a meeting Wednesday.
O'Farrell said he has spoken with Cedillo, who was unseated in the primary and due to leave office at the end the year, and thinks he will resign.
O'Farrell and others haven't been able to reach de Leon, who is not facing reelection until 2024.
De Leon has apologized for his remarks and for what he said was appearing to condone Martinez's comments. Cedillo said he should have intervened.
Both men appeared at Tuesday's meeting and left after being booed and yelled at.
Thompson reported from Sacramento. Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles contributed to this report.