Los Angeles City Councilwoman Resigns Amid Uproar Over Racist Remarks

The former Council president, Nury Martinez, faced calls from state leaders and President Biden to leave office after making racist remarks on a recording that emerged on Sunday.

LOS ANGELES — The former president of the Los Angeles City Council resigned from elective office on Wednesday amid national outrage over racist remarks in a leaked recording, hours after the state attorney general announced an investigation into the redistricting process during which the comments were made.

The decision by the former Council leader, Nury Martinez, who had risen to one of the most powerful posts in the nation’s second-largest city, came three days after a year-old audio recording surfaced of her disparaging colleagues, constituencies and even the child of a fellow council member while discussing ways to change political boundaries to benefit Latino representatives.

Caught on tape with her were two other council members, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, as well as Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. The men, all well-known members of the Latino political establishment in California, did not confront Ms. Martinez and at times kept the conversation going with derogatory comments of their own, according to the recording obtained by The New York Times.

Politicians all the way up to President Biden called for the three council members, all Democrats, to resign immediately. Mr. Herrera stepped down on Monday and Ms. Martinez initially relinquished her Council leadership post. She then announced that she was emotionally exhausted and taking a leave of absence from the Council.

But the fallout continued to roil Los Angeles politics and prevented the 15-member Council from conducting city business. For a second day, protesters packed the Council chamber on Wednesday and chanted repeatedly, demanding that the council members resign as a condition for ending the disruption. So far, Mr. Cedillo and Mr. de León have apologized, but have not resigned.

On the leaked recording of the October 2021 conversation, Ms. Martinez made racist remarks about the Black child of a white council colleague, questioned the trustworthiness of white liberals, and belittled Indigenous immigrants in the city’s Koreatown neighborhood.

In an emotional statement on Wednesday, Ms. Martinez addressed her constituents, staff and fellow council members.

“My only goal as Council president has been to champion a families-first agenda that we can all be proud of,” she said, adding, “While I leave with a heavy heart, know that I wish you all the best and I have faith in your strength to unite this city.”

Ms. Martinez, who was the city’s first Latina president of the Council, added a note “to all the Latina girls across this city — I hope I’ve inspired you to dream beyond that which you can see.”

Christina House/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

Ms. Martinez’s replacement could be chosen by a vote of the other members of the Council. The Council could also call a special election, according to the city clerk’s office, considering that she is leaving with two years left in her term.

In the meeting, which was secretly recorded, the three council members and Mr. Herrera spoke about strategies for ensuring that Council districts would be redrawn so that Latino leaders would have key blocs of voters within their districts, as well as “assets” like airports that can enhance an officeholder’s political influence and fund-raising ability.

The council members and Mr. Herrera complained about a lack of political representation for Latinos and considered ways to carve up districts historically represented by Black council members.

“My goal is to get the three of you elected, and I’m just focused on that,” Mr. Herrera can be heard saying at one point. “We’re like a little Latino caucus of our own.”

The California state government uses an independent commission to determine its political boundaries, but the Los Angeles City Council relies on such a panel only to make recommendations, and can decide its own district lines.

Rob Bonta, the state attorney general and a Democrat, said in an interview on Wednesday that his office would look into potential violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, as well as of the state’s open meetings law and a 2019 act that established transparency guidelines for local redistricting. It was not immediately clear whether the targets of the investigation would be limited to the public officials heard in the leaked audio.

“One of the things we’re looking at is, were the districts created consistent with laws around communities of interest and voter dilution?” Mr. Bonta said. “We need to look at that, but we’re not there yet on the idea of redoing elections or redistricting.”

The state scrutiny came as the Council struggled to conduct business in the face of citywide political furor. When members met on Tuesday for the first time since the audio surfaced, crowds of outraged residents packed into City Hall.

“No resignation, no meeting!” they chanted, waving signs and pounding on the back of the wooden benches.

When the Council tried again to convene on Wednesday, Mitch O’Farrell, a council member who is acting as president of the body in Ms. Martinez’s absence, tried to restore order in the soaring hall, lined by colorful tiles and ornate columns. Later, he added that none of the three council members under fire — Ms. Martinez, Mr. Cedillo or Mr. de León — were present. After a little more than an hour of intense protest, the meeting was adjourned without any official actions or discussion.

Lauren Justice for The New York Times

The Council had been set to discuss a proposal to ask voters to change the city charter so that the City Council would no longer be in charge of its own redistricting — a measure put forth this week by Nithya Raman, a council member who was mentioned on the recording as “not an ally” of the three. After the recorded meeting took place, Ms. Raman’s district was significantly redrawn to be less favorable to her re-election.

Last year, after the redistricting process, California Common Cause, a group that advocates for open government, and members of the city panel that makes redistricting recommendations to the City Council, similarly recommended that the redistricting commission be replaced with a “fully independent” body, charging that the current system had led to “extreme political interference” in the mapmaking.

“I’m glad to hear that an investigation is being launched,” Ms. Raman said in a statement after Mr. Bonta announced his investigation. “As the representative of the district that was most changed by this redistricting process, my priority right now is to reform the system to ensure this never happens again.”

The 80-minute recording, which was first reported by The Los Angeles Times on Sunday, includes audio of Ms. Martinez mocking the Black child of a white councilman, Mike Bonin, in racist terms.

The audio also included ugly remarks describing recent migrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, among other disparaging comments. Condemnation from elected officials, advocacy groups and others was swift and fierce.

Mr. Bonin gave a tearful speech on Tuesday, describing the emotional toll the ordeal had taken on his family, and told the three colleagues that they must resign in order for the city to move forward. Nearly 80 speakers lined up to demand that the council members step down, including many who said that all of the Council’s decisions should be re-evaluated in light of the racism, particularly on the redistricting process.

The Rev. Shane Harris, president of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, a civil rights organization based in San Diego, called on Tuesday for the state to investigate.

“We are not only concerned about the racist remarks,” he said in a statement, “but we are even more concerned with the context of the call and whether civil rights have been violated in this meeting.”

Livia Albeck-Ripka and Mitch Smith contributed reporting.

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