Skelton: De León’s American Dream has descended into a nightmare

Back when he was running the Senate, Kevin de León, currently disgraced Los Angeles City Councilman, admitted growing up with “a chip on my shoulder” and thinking “maybe I wasn’t good enough.”

That chip seemed apparent in the hateful, racist conversation secretly recorded between De León and two other council members that shocked the city and much of America.

The chip was created when De León was raised in poverty by a single mother who illegally immigrated to California from Guatemala. His mother cleaned the homes of wealthy people in San Diego. He often accompanied her on the bus to work. She and his two older half-sisters lived in a basement. The bathroom was up an outside staircase.

All of that created the chip, along with discrimination against Latinos, including himself.

But through intensity and determination, De León slowly began to live the American dream.

De León began his career at an immigration center helping people who immigrated here illegally. In 1994, he helped organize a massive march in downtown LA against Proposition 187, the divisive ballot initiative that sought to deny public services to undocumented immigrants. It passed overwhelmingly but was declared unconstitutional.

He became a labor organizer for the California Teachers Assn. and a campaign manager for Fabian Núñez, who later became speaker of the assembly. They became close friends — one of the seemingly few long-lasting, close friendships De León has developed.

With Núñez’s help, De León won a seat in the assembly in 2006, beating Christine Chavez, granddaughter of legendary farmworkers’ union leader Cesar Chavez. He became an extremely effective legislator, but he threw elbows that didn’t win friends. Ambitious and somewhat raspy, De León was defeated in a bid for speaker.

But in 2014, De León was elected Senate leader by his peers — the first Latino president in 131 years.

This chip soon showed itself. De León hosted a lavish “inauguration” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA — complete with a color guard, mariachis, and political VIPs — funded by pro-Sacramento special interests. He was outraged when I and another Times contributor pointed out that this was far more wasteful than previous lawmakers had celebrated their rise to leadership. These events typically included a low-budget reception in Sacramento and dinner with family, friends, and allies.

De León thought he was being teased for being Latino. Although a Senate leader is extremely powerful, De León failed to realize that being elected by 40 peers doesn’t make it to governor or, say, a board seat in LA representing about 2 million people.

De León still maintained those resentments during the infamous secretly taped conversation reported by The Times this month.

When then-Council President Nury Martinez mentioned that it was recently the anniversary of his election as Senate leader, he remarked: “That swearing-in ceremony, I was so upset about that…. Because we, as Latinos – whether workers or politicians – are not supposed to fill these positions.”

But of the last nine speakers at the convention over the past 25 years, five have been Latinos. Two others were Black Angelenos. Two were white.

De León’s bitter resentment of racism and discrimination surfaced in other ways during the conversation.

The biggest threat to Latinos, he said, isn’t “those pro-Trump nuts in Orange County. It’s the white liberals. It’s the LA Times.”

He dubbed Mike Bonin, who is white, the council’s “fourth black member” because he’s “never going to friggin’ bleep about Latinos.”

Bonin’s adopted black son was described by De León as a prop similar to a designer handbag. His hateful comment came after Martinez called the toddler a “little monkey” in Spanish and said Bonin, who is gay, was a “little slut.”

De León’s goal at the meeting a year ago was to plan how the then-current reshuffle of council seats could cement “Latino strength for the foreseeable future.”

It was Martinez who uttered the most racist and hateful words. But De León and Councilor Gil Cedillo should have told her to hold on — that her gutter talk was unacceptable.

She was the powerful Council President, and de León and Cedillo, following human nature and long-held political pragmatism, went together to get along, I guess. Nunez agrees.

“When the President of the City Council has a conversation like this, the others feel like they should join in,” Núñez told me. “It changes the dynamic. The biggest mistake Kevin and Gil made was not stopping her as soon as she made the comment about the kid.

“Now they are guilty by association. And listen, they said some things they shouldn’t have said.”

It’s the guilt of association that De León burns inside, according to an insider who asked not to be identified. De León doesn’t think he deserves to be lumped together with Martinez.

His comments – though he admits inappropriately – were largely political fare on garden diversity.

“I’ve been in rooms where other politicians have said the same thing or worse,” a senior legislative adviser told me anonymously. “People say things that make me cringe.”

Despite political and public pressure to resign, De León said in a television interview with Noticiero Univision on Wednesday that he would not do so.

One reason, the insider told me, is that De León believes that if he resigns, his involvement in the unfortunate meeting would forever be equated with Martinez. He wants the council and the public to differentiate between the two.

A very proud man, he also deeply resents others – especially political rivals – who try to force him to surrender.

If the Council really wants him out, they should try to use old-fashioned negotiating skills – which seem to be out of fashion now – and agree on an easy route.

Meanwhile, 55-year-old De León has descended from the American dream into a nightmare. Skelton: De León’s American Dream has descended into a nightmare

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