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Latino L.A. City Council members apologize after racist remarks leak

Council President Nury Martinez, who rose to leadership after working for a Black city leader, faces calls to resign.
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A small group of Los Angeles city leaders faced shame and castigation after an audio recording of racist remarks at a private meeting surfaced Sunday.

The most egregious remarks were uttered by City Council President Nury Martinez, who seemed to verify the 2021 recording by apologizing to constituents. She likened a colleague's son, Black and 2 years old at the time, to an animal and seemed to imply that the county's progressive district attorney shouldn't be supported because he may be popular with Black Angelenos.

The audio from a political strategy meeting attended by a handful of Latino Democrats on the council was first reported Sunday by the Los Angeles Times. It had surfaced on a Reddit discussion board this month but was deleted. The source of the recording is unknown, and NBC News hasn't determined whether it has been edited.

LA City Council member Kevin de León and City Council President Nury Martinez
Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León and City Council President Nury Martinez confer at council meeting on Oct. 4. Martinez and de León and other Latino council members apologized Sunday after The Los Angeles Times reported that they had been taped making racist comments in a private meeting.Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/File

The meeting, apparently about political strategy and redistricting, was attended by Martinez and council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, as well as Ron Herrera, the president of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. All are Latino Democrats.

The remarks about the child, the son of departing council member Mike Bonin, concerned his behavior at a parade in 2017, when he was 2. Martinez used a Spanish term to refer to the boy as an animal.

Martinez also dismissed Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, a justice reform advocate who is reviled by law-and-order politicians and has survived two Republican-led recall attempts, as unworthy of the support of the people in the room.

"F--- that guy. He's with the Blacks," she said.

De León, a San Diego-raised politician who rose to statewide prominence as a legislator and then unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Los Angeles, weighed in on Bonin, who is gay, by suggesting he treated his son like a fashion accessory — a handbag.

Martinez asked why Bonin allegedly thinks he's Black, and De León responded, "His kid is."

De León called Bonin, who is white, the 15-seat council's "fourth Black member." De León said Bonin doesn't support Latinos — that he has never said "a peep" about them.

In the audio, Cedillo participated in the conversation when it turned to finding a supporter of the group to appoint to a council seat that opened up after council member Mark Ridley-Thomas was suspended following a federal indictment alleging corruption. He has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 15.

During the meeting, the group settled on Heather Hutt, one of the council's three Black members, who subsequently was appointed by the full council.

Herrera didn't appear to utter any racist remarks. He did say the group's support for a leader to take over the seat for a traditionally Black district should be someone who would be an ally on Latino interests.

Alex Alonso, a Chicano and Latino studies scholar at California State University, Los Angeles, said he agreed with Bonin's call for Martinez, De León and Herrera to resign and said the episode points to deep fissures in the city's population.

"This is very emblematic of how difficult it is to improve Black-brown relations in our city," said Alonso, who is Black and Latino.

A statement attributed to Bonin and his partner, Sean Arian, called on Martinez to resign and, at the same time, urged the council to remove her as president.

The statement characterized Martinez's comments about the son as "dehumanizing" and said, "It is painful to know he will someday read these comments."

The Bonin family statement said only Cedillo couldn't be implicated in making or supporting racist views, but it expressed disappointment, saying his apparent silence was "tacit acceptance of those remarks."

All four apologized in statements. Martinez said the meeting was about redistricting and how it could better represent people of color. Martinez, who worked for one of the city's most prominent Black leaders, Herb Wesson, said her record on matters of race and diversity "speaks for itself."

"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," she said in a statement sent to NBC Los Angeles. "For that I am sorry."

De León said: “There were comments made in the context of this meeting that are wholly inappropriate; and I regret appearing to condone and even contribute to certain insensitive comments made about a colleague and his family in private. I’ve reached out to that colleague personally.

“On that day, I fell short of the expectations we set for our leaders — and I will hold myself to a higher standard.”

In his statement, Cedillo apologized and said he should have intervened when racist remarks were uttered.

“I want to start by apologizing,” he said. “While I did not engage in the conversation in question, I was present at times during this meeting last year,” he continued. “It is my instinct to hold others accountable when they use derogatory or racially divisive language. Clearly, I should have intervened.” 

Herrera's statement, issued through the county labor organization, said there was no excuse for the remarks and for his inaction. "I didn't step up to stop them and I will have to bear the burden of that cross moving forward," he said.

Lorena González of the politically crucial California Labor Federation called the racist remarks "repulsive" and said, "Black and brown leaders need to come together to fight for justice for our shared communities."

She didn't call on anyone to resign.

In a statement, California Democratic Party Chair Rusty Hicks condemned the remarks as “detrimental to our collective work.” He also didn't call for resignations.

The controversy appears to have rocked the Los Angeles political establishment, in which the people who were heard on the recording have held sway for years, at a time when the city's labor-backed Democratic leaders face challenges from the right on homelessness and policing.

Those issues are front and center in the race to replace Mayor Eric Garcetti, which pits a veteran Democrat, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, against billionaire former Republican Rick Caruso.

Observers say the council's three Black members could come up with a consequential reaction to the controversy in the coming week if they band together and decide to call on one or more of the people to resign.

City Hall veteran Jasmyne A. Cannick, who has also worked as a spokesperson and political commentator, said, "Pressure will be on Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Heather Hutt to call for resignations."

The three issued a joint statement Sunday night that called past City Council support for Black Lives Matter "a facade." The statement didn't rule out calling for the resignations of leaders at the meeting.

"The actions of our colleagues should not be tolerated and a vapid tongue has no place in City Hall," the statement reads. "Not today, not tomorrow, not ever."

In a statement, Caruso noted another facet of the meeting: its nonpublic nature.

"This entire situation shows that City Hall is fundamentally broken and dysfunctional," said Caruso, the developer of the Grove mall. "In a closed-door meeting, leaders at the highest levels of city government used racial slurs and hate speech while discussing how to carve up the city to retain their own power."

Alonso said the controversy could lead to a reckoning and new leadership, or it could discourage an already divided city.

Alonso, a noted gang expert, said neighborhood leaders have long been trying desperately to broker peace between Black and Latino people in the city. And now they must ask, he said, "Are we wasting our time trying to get along?"