OP-ED: It's the People's House, Disrespect at Your Own Peril
A BROOKLYN & BOYLE POINT/COUNTERPOINT EXCLUSIVE
Guest Editorial by Richard Vásquez
I, too, feel saddened and let down by the disclosures in the wake of the recently leaked audio recording of a conversation which took place during the course of a private, closed-door meeting held over a years ago at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor offices. Present, we know, were L.A. City Council members Kevin De León, Nury Martínez and Gil Cedillo along with labor leader Ron Herrera. Of the four, I know Cedillo best.
During our undergrad days at UCLA, we shared an affinity for progressive Democrats and a passion for the inclusive politics favored by some—but not all—of the first-generation Bruins from L.A.’s Chicano East Side whom we knew. Gil and I were inspired by the idea civic engagement and often spoke of how we might best serve our emerging community.
Although I don’t know his Council colleagues well, I have had occasion to cross paths with both. Nury was the honored guest at an Earth Day celebration my company helped L.A. Sanitation & Environment (LASAN) produce at Woodley Park in Van Nuys, her district. And just last week at El Mercado artisan market on York in Highland Park, a De Leon staffer placed an oversized sombrero on my toddler-aged granddaughter’s head, which she wore proudly as we strolled about.
I recall these interactions--one with former Councilwoman Martinez, and the more recent encounter with a KDL aide—to point out that up until a few weeks ago when the secretly taped discussions became public, we all seemed connected somehow across this great city of ours. Before that—at least on the surface—it seemed that community-building was a priority among the officeholders in question and not just lip service. When it came to the places where we live, work, and play, it appeared there was only one degree of separation between many of us and our locally elected representatives.
Reflecting on and processing what the tenor of that conversation revealed about those entrusted with stewardship of our beloved Los Angeles, I am convinced that we, as a city in which unity and harmony are tantamount to its survival and its future, need a brand-new start or a do-over. We must, at the very least, assert our demand for and right to a fresh narrative if we hope to ever stand a chance of getting back on track. Though shocked and dismayed by the overtly racist and divisive comments issued by civil servants we had empowered with votes and campaign contributions, we should not be that surprised that it all went down the way it did. It was only a matter of time.
I have learned, after decades of seeing Latinos elected to public office, that despite their purest intentions, few can resist the temptations that come with power, privilege and influence. When they become islands unto themselves, more concerned with holding on to power rather than using that platform to engage, activate and uplift those they were elected to serve, it stops us cold.
We are once again forced to work past our disillusion about those who have little to no interest in initiating structural changes that would invite more engagement and wider oversight with respect to resource allocation and the decision-making process. Lacking the will to rewrite the paradigm altogether, they perpetuate a world where constituents are defined as just another interest group that must be placated between elections.
Every well-meaning Latina/o political aspirant begins by recognizing that demographics do not guarantee equal access to resources. It follows that their commitment to helping constituents build communities in which quality of life improvements become realistic and attainable expectations and not simply best practices or best-case outcomes as a result of their successful electoral efforts was, at one point, sincere.
All that falls by the wayside when a candidacy is validated by election triumph and the bronze-skinned kid who graduated from Franklin, Belmont, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Wilson, Garfield or San Fernando High takes that victory lap through the heady halls of power. Once elected, our leaders too often fall in with a closely aligned network of like-minded and similarly reared counterparts. Together they form close-knit and protective cliques.
By no means do I intend to suggest that this dynamic is unique to Latinos. On the contrary, I suspect it is the case among all marginalized and previously disenfranchised communities, particularly communities of color. Banding together to help our brothers and sisters build community is a noble cause. To do that requires designing and implementing structural changes that run afoul of established protocols and entrenched political culture in which patronage and deals reach behind closed doors predominate. It is the same structure that, for decades, effectively denied specific communities a seat at the table.
The path of least resistance then becomes the surest way to keep the power gained initially at the ballot box in hopes of working within the system to make gradual, incremental changes in those communities that are barely making it. We have seen this cycle repeat itself for the past forty years and it isn’t working. If there was frustration over redistricting as expressed by Nury Martínez, it’s because her leadership was based on a self-perpetuating power structure that works against the interests of working-class and poor people.
It’s an inherent contradiction to try and do both: build community and preserve the status quo. My old friend Gil Cedillo learned this lesson in the primary when voters rejected his style of leadership in favor of someone willing to challenge the beliefs that underlie L.A.’s power structure. The voters expressed an interest in exploring what would happen if the people’s needs drove the policy agenda.
Based on the audio and the derisive as well as racially divisive comments expressed therein, we it appears, on the surface at least, that those singled out in the media and targeted for protest as well as censure, were not true community builders. Despite claims to the contrary or mea culpa apologies, the impression I got was that they felt somehow above it because they had bigger things to worry about.
Ironically, one of the meeting participants had no qualms disrespecting and dismissing some constituents as “little brown… feos” from some nameless, remote and unimportant villages no one needed to care about or be concerned with. How far removed was that slur—obviously based on the too little discussed internal racism among Latinos—from the infamous Trump comment in reference to immigrants from “shithole” countries?
In this manner, our elected leaders conveniently dismissed accountability to the people that bestowed them with the power they hold. That is what makes an elected representative with power over hundreds of thousands of people they don’t truly believe they are beholden to, feel she or he can say and do almost anything they please. And that, I believe, was a fatal mistake, one marking them as out of step and out of touch.
I’m imagine this sense of entitlement was only bolstered once they were ensconced and, in their minds, protected in a space provided by a major political benefactor and longtime enabler, union director Ron Herrera, the fourth individual identified in the recording.
These four players in the drama triggered by the revelations—scandalous enough to elicit a formal rebuke from the White House it should be said—learned this lesson the hard way. Their time, as result of this self-inflicted immolation, has expired and they have cut themselves out of the political spotlight under which they may have felt they were shielded. The fallout might best be described as the implosion of their combined illusions regarding their respective ascensions to political prominence.
To be sure, the lessons we learn from this can help us move our city forward.
Lesson No. 1: it is the people that govern the city of Los Angeles. Only their interests are important. They allocate power through a belief in and faithful adherence to established democratic principles. And they can withdraw that power at any time. It behooves future representatives for Council Districts 6 and 14 to take this to heart. Council District 1 has already elected someone who is on-board with honoring the people’s mandate.
Lesson No. 2: It is urgent that we disperse power in Los Angeles. Having so much power rest in the hands of so few leads to overwhelming temptations capable of transfiguring even the most well-intentioned leaders, and not for the better. They become prey to lavish meals at the best restaurants courtesy of lobbyists, big campaign fundraisers in swanky mansions, any number of staff at their beck and call around the clock, and, of course, a comfortable salary. This just scratches the surface of the temptation that comes with representing a vast constituency that, as function of sheer size and scale, suffers from near invisibility. We would do well so consider doubling the size of the council and soon.
Lesson No. 3 (biggest and most critical): It is, ultimately—after all is said and done—the people’s house. Not yours. Disrespect it at your own peril.
Richard Vásquez began life after college as an aide to Senator Alan Cranston. He is a principal at Vásquez Associates and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.