LOS ANGELES (AP) — California’s attorney general said Wednesday that he will investigate Los Angeles’ redistricting process as three of its City Council members face calls to resign over a leaked recording of them using racist language to mock colleagues while they schemed to protect Latino political strength in council districts.
The announcement from Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat like the three council members, comes amid growing calls to address the way politics can still influence the redrawing of district maps after the census count each decade. He said the investigation could lead to civil liability or criminal charges, depending on what is found.
“We’re going to gather the facts, we’re going to work to determine the truth and take action as necessary to ensure the fair application of our laws,” Bonta said.
“It’s clear an investigation is sorely needed to help restore confidence in the redistricting process for the people of LA,” he added.
Bonta spoke in Los Angeles while the council itself was trying to conduct business nearby despite the uproar triggered by the recording of crude, racist comments from a nearly year-old meeting, which also provided an unvarnished look into City Hall’s racial rivalries. Those involved in the closed-door meeting were all Latinos, while Bonta is the first Filipino American to hold the top law enforcement job in the nation’s most populous state.
Three council members — former City Council President Nury Martinez, who is taking a leave of absence, and Councilmen Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo — are facing calls from President Joe Biden and others to resign after the recording surfaced online.
The council reconvened Wednesday, possibly to censure the three members, with the minimum of 10 out of 15 members necessary for a quorum but was unable to do business because a crowd of protesters chanted slogans such as, “No resignation, shut it down.” The acting council president eventually announced that there was no longer a quorum and adjourned the meeting.
The council cannot expel the members — it can only suspend a member when criminal charges are pending. A censure does not result in suspension or removal from office.
Martinez said in the recorded conversation that white council member Mike Bonin handled his young Black son as if he were an “accessory” and said of his son “Parece changuito,” or “he’s like a monkey,” the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday. She also referred to Bonin as a “little bitch.”
At another point on the hourlong recording, Martinez, the first Latina appointed president of the City Council, called indigenous immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca ugly, and made crass remarks about Jews and Armenians.
The discussion — which also included a powerful Latino labor leader, who has since resigned — centered on protecting Latino political power during the redrawing of council district boundaries, known as redistricting. The once-a-decade process can pit one group against another to gain political advantage in future elections.
Black and Latino constituents often build alliances in politics. But tensions and rivalries among groups separated by race, geography, partisanship or religion have a long history in Los Angeles and, indeed, the country. The friction can cross into housing, education and jobs — even prisons — as well as the spoils of political power.
Bonta has roundly condemned the members’ remarks without adding to the calls for them to resign. He said Wednesday that his investigation was “just starting and we don’t like to make conclusions first and get facts later.”
“It could lead to criminality if that’s where the facts and the law dictate. There’s certainly the potential for civil liability based on civil rights and voting rights laws here in the state of California,” he said, while also noting it could also lead to changes in policy at the state or local level.
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer reiterated previous calls for creating an independent commission to draw redistricting maps.
“It should be clear to everyone by now that leaving the power to draw their own district lines in the hands of the politicians who stand to benefit from how those lines are drawn is a massive conflict of interest and an invitation to the sort of backroom dealing this outrageous conversation revealed,” Feuer said in a statement Tuesday.
Martinez stepped down from the leadership job and apologized Monday, saying she was ashamed of her racially offensive language in the year-old recording. She announced Tuesday that she would take a leave of absence from her council seat.
Bonin has called for the three to resign and said he was deeply wounded by the taped discussion.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the recording was posted on the social medial site Reddit by a now-suspended user. It is unclear who recorded the audio, who uploaded it to Reddit and whether anyone else was present.
Thompson contributed from Sacramento. Associated Press writers John Antczak and Amancai Biraben in Los Angeles and Sophie Austin in Sacramento contributed to this report.