For what seemed like the 100th time in about 20 minutes, Kevin de León was speechless, his jaw slack, his eyes as wide and blank as a deer caught in headlights.
Tavis Smiley, the host and founder of KBLA Talk 1580 AM, had just asked the embattled Los Angeles City Council member the only question that matters: How did De León possibly think he could continue to serve in elected office?
How when so many Angelenos now see the former activist as a “hypocrite” for participating in a racist, secretly recorded conversation with two other Latino council members and a labor leader? On Thursday, five of his Eastside constituents filed paperwork to recall him.
“Because,” De León said finally and unconvincingly, “I know what’s in my heart. I know what my values are. I know what my principles are.”
“Is Kevin de León being truthful with regards to his apology?” he continued, referring to himself in the third person, as politicians with egos the size of entire continents tend to do. “Is he being truthful with regards to his tone? … I know what my moral compass is.”
Welcome to the Kevin de León Apology Tour.
It’s short on substance and sincerity. Not to mention self-awareness. But long on martyrdom, delusions of grandeur and self-serving spin, spoken in breathy tones fit for the funeral that is De León’s political career.
It’s quite the show, though. And for taxpayers still paying his $229,000 annual salary, quite the price of admission.
It all kicked off last week with back-to-back television interviews, featuring a somber and serious De León declaring that he would not resign. Despite widespread calls for him to do just that, including from the president of the United States, he insisted that the residents of the 14th Council District, which includes downtown, Boyle Heights and Eagle Rock, “deserve representation.”
Besides, De León added, he wants to help the city “heal” from the pain he caused by scheming with fellow Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Nury Martinez, as well as Ron Herrera of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, about how to dilute the political power of Black Angelenos.
“I’m so sorry. I am extremely sorry, and that is why I apologize to all my people, to my entire community, for the damage caused by the painful words that were carried out that day last year,” De León told Noticiero Univision anchor León Krauze.
As a Black Angeleno, I’m still not sure if I am included in “my people” and “my entire community,” or if he just means Latinos. It’s no wonder his Apology Tour has been such a flop.
De León either doesn’t understand this or doesn’t accept it yet, but what he’s really on is a Farewell Tour. Interview after interview, he is talking himself into total irrelevancy.
His clumsy mea culpas certainly made it easier for the L.A. City Council to take the exceedingly rare and severe step of censuring De León, along with Cedillo and Martinez, the latter of whom wisely resigned shortly after the secretly recorded conversation she led was leaked online.
“Mr. De León, in particular, continues to go on a revisionist history tour in the public and continues to make a mockery of this council, and a mockery of the entire city for his own personal benefit,” Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson said shortly before the vote on Wednesday.
By censuring the council members, he added, it sends the message that “these comments are unacceptable to us and that we disassociate ourselves from them as a body.”
It’s the same message that protesters tried to send to De León earlier this week, when they gathered to march through the streets of Eagle Rock and took over the normally quiet block near his home.
Neighbors walked into their frontyards and peeped out of their windows, nodding along with the chants of fuera as TV cameras rolled. Others put their fists in the air as they drove by.
“We are strong, we are dignified people. And we will not be divided,” Alberto Retana, president and chief executive of Community Coalition, shouted to the crowd. “Kevin de León thinks he can wait us out!”
Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles has erected a small encampment along a sidewalk within sight of the council member’s driveway, and the activists sleeping and eating there have vowed not to leave until he resigns.
But despite five constituents filing the initial paperwork on Thursday in hopes of triggering a recall election to boot De León from office, he remains defiant.
“Yet another recall that distorts his record will not distract the councilmember or his office from continuing to serve the people of Council District 14,” his spokesperson, Pete Brown, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, De León’s Apology Tour continues.
Speaking to Smiley this week, live on the radio and streaming on video, he sounded and looked almost bewildered. Like a man trying to reconcile and explain his personal contradictions at the same time.
De León has often shared his — until now — inspiring life story.
How he was raised by a single mother who emigrated
from Guatemala. How his family lived in poverty and in a basement. How his mother cleaned houses.
How he became an immigrant rights activist and, in 1994, helped organize a huge protest in downtown Los Angeles to push back on Proposition 187, designed to deny government services to immigrants without legal status.
How he became a labor organizer, a member of the state Assembly and, eventually, leader of the state Senate — the first time in more than a century that a Latino had led the upper chamber.
He told me this story when we met when I was an opinion writer in Sacramento and he was pushing
an array of progressive priorities, including legislation to increase California’s use of renewable energy.
And he told me his story again when he was making his long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate against Dianne Feinstein. And again when he was running for mayor of Los Angeles.
How did he go from that person to this person?
De León has always struck me as ambitious, determined, overconfident and stubborn — all necessary and, in controlled doses, even appropriate personality traits for someone who had to start from the bottom and has made it here.
And by “here,” I unfortunately mean hunkered down in KBLA’s studio in Leimert Park with protesters outside demanding that he resign. And on the air, meekly explaining that he didn’t make a Black media outlet the first — or even the third — stop on his Apology Tour “because of my embarrassment, because my sense of shame.”
“I know what was said,” De León told Smiley. “Tone and tenor in the tape. And I know what the outcomes were. And I know what my history is. What my history is with regards to the shared struggles that I have been part of in moving, you know, policies on restorative justice, on moving issues to create more parks and open space in Black and brown communities.”
He pointed to a recently awarded $46-million grant for skid row, the “poorest Black community” in L.A.
“Obviously, you know, the announcement gets drowned out by anything else given, you know, what is happening today. But those are real, genuine, by any objective measurement, driven by my sense of struggle, my sense of fighting for those who have had little or no voice.”
Too bad Los Angeles no longer believes you. The show is over now. Say goodbye.