Gil Cedillo is a strong supporter of immigrant rights. A racist leak scandal is putting his job at risk.
When four Latino leaders got together last year to talk about the boundaries of the Los Angeles City Council, an audio recording showed that one of them acted at times like the political elder in the room.
City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, 68, stepped in to keep the conversation about the 15 City Council districts on track among himself, Councilmembers Nury Martinez and Kevin De León, and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor leader Ron Herrera.
“Let me explain. So, the [county Federation of Labor] is now run by a Mexican, which was not the case 25 years ago. “The [City] Council is run by a Mexican,” Cedillo said. “The council has more people on it. We are not in the same place we were 25 years ago. For us, that thing is to use our power.”
The way Cedillo talked about the rise of Latino power was the same way he got to City Hall. He is one of the most well-known Latino politicians in California. He grew up in Boyle Heights and went to high school with former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Now, many people are calling for him to step down and criticizing him for not speaking up and for joining in on the heated and divisive conversation, which has made his allies sad and given his opponents more power. This week, Martinez and Herrera both quit because of the uproar over their racist and insulting comments.
On Friday, Sara Harris, who helped start a neighborhood group called 1866 in Solano Canyon that is in Cedillo’s district, sent a letter to acting council president Mitch O’Farrell demanding that Cedillo step down.
Harris, who calls herself a “Mexican American Jew” and has a black brother-in-law and a black nephew, said she was scared when Martinez suggested hitting the young black son of a white councilmember, and she asked Cedillo why he didn’t stop the talk.
“I hear my own people talk about my own family in that way,” she said. “It’s enraging.”
Helen Sanchez, a communications consultant who first worked with Cedillo in the late 1980s on the campaign of then-presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, said, “We need to speak up when someone is saying bad things, even if they are our friends.”
Sanchez said, “I know Gilbert, and I know he’s not a racist.” “None of these things can take away the work he’s done. He has been a supporter of underprivileged groups for years, and no matter what he says, you can’t take that away.
Cedillo hasn’t said anything in public since he apologized. Earlier this week, he told The Times that he didn’t say anything racist or make fun of his colleagues.
“I was at this meeting last year, but I didn’t take part in the conversation in question. When people say hurtful or racially divisive things, it’s in my nature to call them out on it. Clearly, I should have stepped in,” Cedillo said in the statement, which also said that “the comments made about my colleague’s son were simply unacceptable.”
He turned down a request for an interview on Friday. His spokesman, Conrado Terrazas, said, “Councilmember Cedillo is in a place of reflection.”
It’s not clear what the councilmember will do next. When he walked onto the council floor on Tuesday, the first time the group met after the explosive audio was leaked, people yelled, “Resign, Gil!”
Cedillo was already supposed to leave office on December 11 after Eunisses Hernandez won the June primary in District 1 as a community activist. Rules say that he could stay on the City Council until Dec. 11, even if he didn’t show up, because council members can be away for up to 60 days.
O’Farrell called off the meeting for Friday and asked Cedillo and De León to step down again.
Harris from Solano Canyon said she was already upset with how Cedillo was representing the district, and she is now mad that the council meeting was canceled. She wants the city to do something about the problems in Animal Services. “It’s a gut punch to see privileged, powerful people stop business from getting done at City Hall,” Harris said.
In October 2021, the group talked about redistricting at the L.A. County Federation of Labor. They talked about how to keep Latinos’ political power while also making sure that they and their colleagues have districts that help them get re-elected.
Cedillo is heard talking about how upset he is with some parts of his district.
He said that he doesn’t “need” Eagle Rock, Highland Park, and Lincoln Heights, which are Eastside neighborhoods that are becoming more and more expensive, and said that Westlake and Pico-Union are where he comes from. He told Martinez, “I have poor people.”
Earlier in the about hour-long audio, some of the comments turned into things that were hurtful and racist. Martinez called the son of Councilmember Mike Bonin “Parece changuito,” which means “like a monkey,” and said the boy’s behavior at a public event meant he deserved to be “beaten up.”
Cedillo seemed to say at one point in that part of the recording that the boy needs a “pinch.”
Later, when Martinez said that she sees a lot of “little short dark people” in Koreatown, she was using a stereotype that has been used against Oaxacans in both Mexico and the United States for a long time. Cedillo said, “Puro Oaxacans.” Pure Korean from Oaxaca. Not even like Kevin — little ones.”
When asked about Cedillo’s comments, Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University, said, “It’s not right to talk about any group based on how they look.”
Guerra complained about the racism and lack of leadership in the group. He also said, “I have never heard [Cedillo] say anything racist or anti-Black in my whole life.”
Guerra has known Cedillo for more than 20 years. He watched as labor and immigrant rights groups helped Cedillo get elected to the state Assembly in 1997. His allies used anger over Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s anti-immigrant message to help them win the election.
The county Federation of Labor found new Latino voters and sent them mailers saying that Cedillo was “the Democrat that Pete Wilson feared the most.”
At the state level, Cedillo was called “One Bill Gil” because he worked hard and sometimes seemed crazy to get a law passed that would let immigrants in the country illegally get driver’s licenses.
After Cedillo’s term ended, a version of the bill was finally signed into law. But the policy that changed things, which has since been copied by a number of other countries, is still an important part of his legacy.
Cedillo was first elected to the L.A. City Council in 2013. In 2017, he was re-elected after his opponent, Joe Bray-Ali, lost because he said racist things on a website.
Hernandez’s win in June showed that progressives in L.A. were getting stronger, but it also showed that some people in Cedillo’s district were upset that he hadn’t done enough on housing. Nearly two-thirds of the people who live in District 1 are Latino, but some areas have seen wealthy white people move in.
On the City Council, there are often fights and deals, and Bonin backed Hernandez in the race. Bonin and Cedillo also had tensions in previous years over policy differences regarding bike lanes and homelessness.
After The Times wrote about the leaked audio on Sunday night, Cedillo sent Bonin a text message with the statement he made. David Graham-Caso, Bonin’s deputy chief of staff, said that Cedillo didn’t say anything else in the text.
Cedillo tried to talk to Bonin on the City Council floor on Tuesday, but Graham-Caso told Cedillo that apologizing in front of the TV cameras wasn’t the right thing to do.