After racist leaked recording, Los Angeles City Council president takes leave; Biden calls for resignations

Cady Stanton

Leaked audio of a conversation between some of Los Angeles' top political players that included racist remarks has cascaded into multiple resignations that came to a head during a rowdy – and at times chaotic – city council meeting Wednesday. 

The audio sent shockwaves through the city, which is known as a liberal hub with trendsetting progressive policies, and across the nation — even reaching the White House. At a press conference Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden believes all those heard on the leaked audio should resign and be held accountable for their actions and speech. 

The latest: Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez announced Tuesday she is taking a "leave of absence" from the council two days after audio leaked of her racist remarks in a meeting last October, the Los Angeles Times reported. Nury and Ron Herrera, the president of Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, both resigned from their presidency positions on Monday, according to the Times.

What's in the audio: In the recording obtained by The Times, Martinez could be heard making racist statements about a white councilmember's child, saying her colleague “handled his young Black son as though he were an accessory" and describing the colleague's son in Spanish as “like a monkey.” Martinez resigned from her position as president Monday.

The bigger picture: The resignations complicate upcoming political races in the nation's second most populous city, where elections for mayor and councilmember seats are set for Nov. 8. 

Nury Martinez:LA's first Latina council president resigns after leaked racist remarks

What happened in the recording?

The conversation reportedly took place during an October 2021 meeting at the union federation's offices between Martinez, Herrera and councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León in discussion over the city's redistricting process, the Times reported

Audio of the conversation was first posted on Reddit by a now-suspended user, according to the Times, and it is unclear if anyone else was present, who recorded the audio and who posted the recording.

Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez, here at a news conference in 2021, became the first Latina to hold the powerful position in 2019.

In addition to her comments about her colleague's Black son, Martinez also reportedly called the colleague, councilmember Mike Bonin, an expletive, according to the audio posted by the Times, allegedly saying his parents are "raising him like a little white kid."

"I was like, this kid needs a beatdown," Martinez reportedly said. "Let me take him around the corner and then I'll bring him back."

Martinez can also be heard on the audio referring to Oaxacan immigrants living in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles as “little short dark people.”

Martinez issued an apology Monday morning and stepped down as president "effective immediately" in a statement reported by the Times. It is unclear whether she will remain on the council in a non-leadership role, though Tuesday she said she was taking a temporary leave of absence

“I ask for forgiveness from my colleagues and from the residents of this city that I love so much,” she said.

Opinion:You don't need to be a white supremacist to be racist. LA City Council conversation proves it.

Protestors disrupt city council meeting after leaked audio

The Tuesday city council meeting, which began 30 minutes after its intended start time, was immediately disrupted by protestors in the meeting room who booed, chanted and shouted at councilmembers. Shouts included: “This meeting will not start,” “no roll call, they don’t belong here, they’ve got to go,” and “get out!”

Public attendees refused to lower their voices for the council to start the meeting, instead pushing for the two councilmembers heard on the leaked audio who have not yet resigned – Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León – to leave the room.

Protestors eventually quieted to allow councilmember Bonin, who was the target of the recording, to speak.

“I really do not want to be here today, I want to be home with my family right now,” he said. “Public officials are supposed to call us to our highest selves, and these people stabbed us and shot us and cut the spirit of Los Angeles.”

Following Bonin’s remarks, the council heard from members of the public. Residents largely used their time to issue passionate demands for the full resignation of Martinez, Cedillo and de León from the council; to denounce the comments made by Martinez and the passive inaction by the others present during the recording; and to share their personal experiences encountering racism in Los Angeles.

President Biden joins chorus of calls for resignations

Sitting councilmembers, council candidates and local political groups continued to call for the other two councilmembers heard in the audio to resign. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the California democratic party, multiple labor unions and current mayoral candidates are among those pushing for the resignations.

This seemingly local issue, though, has spread like wildfire across the country and Democratic party — even reaching the White House. At a press conference Tuesday, Jean-Pierre said President Biden believes all politicians should be held accountable for racist language, including Democratic leaders who are leading one of the most liberal leaning cities in the country. 

"The President is glad to see that one of the participants in that conversation has resigned," Jean-Pierre said. "He believes that they all should resign. The language that was used during that conversation was unacceptable and it was appalling."

Was the recording legal?

California is a "two-party consent state" when it comes to recordings, making it illegal to record a private conversation without all parties involved consenting to the recording.

The LA County Federation of Labor, whose offices were where the recording took place characterized the leaked audio as a “serious security and privacy breach” in an email to affiliates Sunday, calling them "illegal" recordings of private conversations, the Times reported. The email also said the federation planned to investigate the leak and “make sure these crimes are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

The redistricting politics discussed in the call

The conversation included in the leaked audio centered on how Martinez and the other Latino political leaders at the meeting are aiming to protect their political power during redistricting, or the redrawing of council district boundaries in Los Angeles. The group also discussed the need to reelect Latino members and protect economic interests within Latino districts, the Times reported. 

Los Angeles is a minority-majority city, with less than half of residents identifying as white alone, according to the U.S. census. About 48% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, 11.8% as Asian and 8.8% as Black.

The California Legislative Black Caucus said the recording “reveals an appalling effort to decentralize Black voices during the critical redistricting process.” Redistricting occurs every 10 years and can pit groups against another in attempts to gain political advantage in future elections. 

Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, said the leaked audio exposes the behind-the-scenes political power struggles that often play out outside of 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."

Martinez was elected in 2013 and became the council's first Latina president in 2020. Los Angeles elections for mayor, a race between Democrats Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, as well as multiple council seats, are set to be held on Nov. 8. Both Caruso and Bass, who have been in a tight race, have called for the resignations of all parties heard on the leaked recording.

Contributing: The Associated Press