LOS ANGELES (AP) — A leaked recording of crude, racist comments that resulted in the president of the Los Angeles City Council resigning from the post also provided an unvarnished look into City Hall’s racial rivalries and the sometimes-hidden fight to seize and hold political power in a changing city.
Former Council president Nury Martinez, a Democrat, stepped down from the job and apologized Monday, saying she was ashamed of her racially offensive language in the year-old recording. Her remarks, which included mocking the Black son of a white councilman, came during a discussion with other Latino Council members and a Latino labor leader about protecting their political power during the redrawing of council district boundaries, known as redistricting. The once-a-decade process can pit one group against another to gain political advantage in future elections.
The white councilman, Mike Bonin, issued a statement with his husband calling for the resignations of Martinez and others involved in the discussion, describing it as “a coordinated effort to weaken Black political representation in Los Angeles.”
The California Legislative Black Caucus said the recording “reveals an appalling effort to decentralize Black voices during the critical redistricting process.”
Blacks and Latinos often build alliances in politics, but tension and rivalries among groups separated by race, geography, partisanship or religion have a long history in Los Angeles and, indeed, the country. The friction can cross into housing, education and jobs — even prisons — as well as the spoils of political power.
“Essentially, those two communities were going after the same pie crumbs,” said Michael Trujillo, a veteran Democratic consultant based in Los Angeles.
On the profanity-laced recording, the group discussed the city’s redrawing of Council district boundaries, as well as the need to reelect Latino members and protect economic interests within Latino districts, the Los Angeles Times, which obtained the recording, reported.
“If you’re going to talk about Latino districts, what kind of districts are you trying to create?” Martinez asked at one point. “You’re just going to create poor Latino districts with nothing?”
On the recording, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera expressed the need for caution in handling a district held by a Black councilman who had been indicted on federal corruption charges. He warned that the Black community could look at it as “a hostile takeover.”
“Because politically, they’re going to come after us,” Herrera said on the recording.
The recording surfaced at a time when rude political discourse has become commonplace nationwide, often laced with baseless allegations or conspiracy theories, but in this case involving members of the same party.
Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, said the recording reveals the nature of political power struggles that often play out beyond public view.
“What we are hearing on the tape is everybody else be damned, especially the African American community,” he said.
“A lot of it goes back to when Latinos started to organize and get political power in the first place. That meant breaking the door down to City Hall,” Regalado said.
Black politicians “are trying to protect what they have. At the same time, you can understand the Latino wishes for parity” on the Council, given the growing Latino population, he said.
In 2005, when Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa became the first Latino mayor in more than a century, he had to overcome fears in the Black community that if he was elected, Black people would be ousted from government jobs and replaced by Latinos. When he was a candidate, Villaraigosa talked about overcoming the “black-brown divide” that can breed violence.
Black leadership has worried about potentially losing historically Black U.S. House seats in Southern California, amid shifting demographics.
In L.A., the Latino population has been growing for decades and now represents about half the population. The Black population is about 9%. Latinos have long said their representation on the Council falls below their share of the population, while Blacks have maintained an outsized representation, despite comprising a relatively small share of the city residents. The heavily Democratic city gave rise to a prominent line of Black politicians, including former Mayor Tom Bradley and Democratic U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters.
Fernando Guerra of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University called the racist language “horrific,” but added that the recording underscored the reality of politics. Once power is gained, “You are not going to give it to someone else.”
“There is a political axiom that power is not given up, its taken,” he said. Despite the friction “there is not a single case of a Latino taking a Black seat of a significant position in L.A.,” such as Congress or the Legislature.
The dispute has washed into the city’s race for mayor.
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, who is running for mayor against fellow Democrat Rick Caruso and could become the first Black woman to hold the office, said the Latino Council members were “stoking the divide between our city’s Black and Latino communities.” She also called for those involved to resign.
Caruso has promised to take on dysfunction at City Hall, and the disclosure of the recording could play into his overall message. He also called for the resignation of those involved.
He called it “a heartbreaking day.”