LOS ANGELES — Two months after he became entangled in a racism scandal that shook public trust in Los Angeles government, disgraced City Council member Kevin de León has refused calls to resign and is trying to rehabilitate his reputation as he faces a politically uncertain future.
As of Monday, de León, a former state legislator, is the only council member still resisting calls from President Joe Biden to step down. He continues to collect his annual salary of nearly $229,000 — among the most lucrative paydays for city council members in the country.
Gil Cedillo, another council member involved in the scandal over a leaked recording of racist insults that emerged in October, vanished from public view within days of its disclosure but refused to resign. His term expired at 12:01 a.m. Monday after he lost a re-election bid this year.
Continuing fallout from the racism scandal is one challenge that will confront the city’s new mayor, Democrat Karen Bass, as she takes office Monday. Meanwhile, three other current or former council members have been indicted on or pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Stripped of his ability to participate in council committees and facing widespread pressure to resign, and after an extended absence from council meetings, de León has been maneuvering in public and private to emerge from political purgatory, despite being reviled by colleagues who say they cannot work with him.
His situation deteriorated Friday, when he scuffled with an activist who heckled him at a holiday toy giveaway that was partly captured on video and posted on Twitter. The confrontation left children at the event in tears.
Council President Paul Krekorian, who has called on de León to step down, said in a statement that de León, one of his staff members and a volunteer were attacked, which he said was intolerable. The Los Angeles Times reported that activists said de León was the aggressor.
“This city has endured horrendous division and toxicity in recent months,” Krekorian said. “We need to reject hatred in all of its forms and we need to reject the atmosphere of intimidation, bullying and threats.”
De León appeared Friday at his first council meeting since mid-October, setting off a chaotic protest between competing factions in the audience. About a dozen protesters bellowed at de León to leave the ornate chamber, while his supporters chanted “Kevin, Kevin.”
Some council members walked out, and police ejected two people, fearing they might fight.
“Leave, Kevin!” a protester shouted at de León. “This is why these meetings need to be shut down.”
The scandal triggered the resignation in October of City Council President Nury Martinez and a powerful labor leader, Ron Herrera, along with calls from Biden and other elected officials for de León and others to resign.
The uproar stemmed from a leaked recording of crude, racist comments from a year-old meeting in which Martinez, Herrera, de León and Cedillo — all Latino Democrats — plotted to expand their political power at the expense of Black voters in a realignment of district boundaries.
The once-a-decade redrawing of district lines can pit one group against another to gain political advantage in future elections.
The California Legislative Black Caucus has said the recording “reveals an appalling effort to decentralize Black voices during the critical redistricting process.” A long line of speakers at council meetings that followed said that it echoed the Jim Crow era and that it was a stark example of “anti-Blackness.”
De León has apologized repeatedly but said he will not resign. He argues that he wants to continue working on homelessness, fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the threat of evictions for renters in his district, which includes downtown Los Angeles and the heavily Latino Boyle Heights neighborhood.
There is no legal avenue for his colleagues to remove him — the council can suspend a member only when criminal charges are pending.
Krekorian, the council president, has said “the only way we can begin to heal as a city is for Mr. de León to take responsibility for his actions, accept the consequences and step down.”
While de León has largely stayed away from City Hall, he has continued to quietly conduct business, including attending holiday events and meeting officials about pending homeless projects and illegal dumping problems.
With his appearance at the council meeting Friday, it is clear he is trying to gradually step back into the public sphere. Meanwhile, organizers behind an effort to recall him from office have been cleared to collect petition signatures needed to qualify the proposal for the ballot.
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