Two major news stories have rattled Boyle Heights since the March 3 primary election in which Kevin de León won the five-candidate race for the City Council District 14 seat.
One was the expected arrest of CD14 incumbent José Huízar, charged with soliciting and receiving illicit funds in exchange for political favors in an extensive City Hall corruption scheme.
Huízar was believed to be at the center of a federal investigation since his Boyle Heights home and office were raided by the FBI in 2018. He was freed on bond following his June 23 arrest and is awaiting arraignment. He has since been suspended from his post, but cannot be replaced until he is found guilty or resigns. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this interview was published, Huízar has been arraigned; the suspended councilman plead not guilty and a trial date has been set for Sept. 29.]
The other major news event is the ongoing, devastating effect of the coronavirus pandemic. Boyle Heights has more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other neighborhood in Los Angeles, and one of the highest infection rates in the city.
By getting nearly 53% of the votes in March, De León was able to avoid a November runoff. Earlier this month, Boyle Heights Beat talked to the councilman-elect about some of issues affecting Boyle Heights and the rest of CD 14 – which includes a major portion of downtown Los Angeles, Lincoln Heights, Eagle Rock, Highland Park and other Northeast LA neighborhoods.
Reporter Noemí Estrada asked about the possibility of taking over the CD-14 seat before he is scheduled to do so in December, about the void of leadership during the coronavirus crisis, and about the persistent question of De León’s future political aspiration.
This is the first of two installments. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Boyle Heights Beat: Congratulations on winning the March 3 election.
Kevin de León: Thanks!
BHB: Did you expect such a wide margin, not having a runoff.
KDL: Well, I can tell you this: I worked really hard. I’ve had the honor, the distinct pleasure. to represent many of the areas of CD 14 for the past 12 years – as Assemblymember and as the President of the California State Senate. But when I made the determination to throw my hat in the ring and to represent CD 14, I didn’t take anything for granted. I surely didn’t want to campaign on accomplishments.
“I have made it very clear that I’m ready to take over and roll up my sleeves. However, I want to make sure that there is legal clarity and there is no confusion, no room for any type of misinterpretation… unless there’s a conviction or a voluntary resignation, which there has been neither, [the CD 14] seat currently is occupied by Councilmember José Huízar.”
That’s why I worked really hard. We went door to door. I personally was knocking on doors and making phone calls to voters in the district. And I can’t say I was surprised because we set up a goal to win outright in the primary. I had a really great, solid team, with an incredible number of volunteers who were dedicated, who were committed, who walked Boyle Heights – Estrada Courts, Pico Aliso, other areas. I was a lot at the Ramona Gardens projects, a lot. And I was very honored that the voters overwhelmingly selected me to be their next representative on CD14. Boyle Heights was a huge, huge base of support for us.
BHB: I have to ask you a couple questions about José Huízar. Have you been in contact with his office since his arrest, and have you asked him to step down from office?
KDL: I haven’t been in contact with his office since his arrest. I’ve had some folks who have been in contact with regards to current projects in CD 14. I will say, in regards to José Huízar, it’s unfortunate and it is very sad that this is happening to him, to his family, his wife and children, and just as importantly to the constituents of CD14, but especially Boyle Heights, because [that’s] where he began his political career. It’s sort of premature for me to advise him to make any decision right now – since there has been no arraignment as of yet, let alone any conviction – but it does prove to be very awkward for the constituents of CD 14, because as of right now they have no political representation. Although legally he is the city council member for CD 14.
BHB: You’ve said that you’ve been in communication with council president Nury Martínez about the possibility of taking over the office earlier than December. How has that progressed?
KDL: I’ve been in touch with Martinez as well as numerous other city council members, I have made it very clear that I’m ready to take over and roll up my sleeves. However, I want to make sure that there is legal clarity and there is no confusion, no room for any type of misinterpretation. A suspension is just that, a suspension, not a termination. You can’t have two council members functioning in the same role. in the same seat, simultaneously. So as of date, from what we read from the [city] charter, unless there’s a conviction or a voluntary resignation, which there has been neither, that seat currently is occupied by Councilmember José Huízar.
BHB: In an interview last month you said you intend to do everything in your power to restore voter confidence in city government. How do you plan to go about this?
“I don’t think it’s a prerequisite that you go to Salesian High School or to Roosevelt to be an elected official [in Boyle Heights]. What people want at the end of the day, they want a fighter.”
KDL: Well, I think first and foremost, it starts with hiring staff that are truly committed to the constituents of CD 14, who are very hard working, who understand that the job is 24/7, because you are meeting the needs of a constituency that for a very long time have been historically marginalized, politically as well as socioeconomically. It’s about moving a proactive agenda that moves policies at the local level [but] also working with our partners at the state and federal level, to help leverage opportunities to create policies that will improve the human condition for all individuals, regardless of who you are, where you come from, the color of your skin or your legal status.
BHB: For the first time in decades, Boyle Heights will be represented by a city council member who is not from this community. Huízar made a big deal about being raised and living here. How do you plan on gaining the trust of Boyle Heights? and how important is this community to you?
KDL: Well, let me establish a couple things. One, is this community is near and dear to my heart. I discovered my political awakening in CD 14. In fact, in Boyle Heights, on the corner of Esperanza and Whittier Boulevard, where I used to work as a community organizer for a nonprofit organization that no longer exists today, One Stop Immigration & Educational Center, where I [helped] tens of thousands of mostly undocumented immigrants become legal permanent residents and eventually U.S. citizens. I was one of the main organizers of what was then the largest march in the history of California, [against] Proposition 187, that started at Cinco Puntos, right in Boyle Heights. We marched down what was then Brooklyn, today César Chávez, through Placita Olvera to downtown Los Angeles in front of the LA Times building.
I have a long history in CD 14, but especially In Boyle Heights. Folks know me and I really think I have gained their trust, by reflection of the overwhelming victory that was afforded to us on March 3. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite that you go to Salesian High School or to Roosevelt to be an elected official, representing people whose [policy needs] are universal, especially when it comes to poverty, lack of health care, bad air quality, pollution… the fact that Boyle Heights is surrounded by five major freeways, the fact that we have very little economic opportunities, the very fact that we have gentrification, displacement, lack of parks and open space and congestion, all of these issues. What people want at the end of the day, they want a fighter.
We have a major issue when it comes to displacement and gentrification. And families that are being left on the streets. who don’t have the financial wherewithal to keep the roof over their head, the fact that we have COVID-19 and the economy has been virtually destroyed. And we have so many families who cannot meet the rents and are standing in food lines. And that’s why they need a fighter in City Hall, that’s going to represent their views, their values, their dreams or aspirations.
Read the second part of the interview:
Kevin de León: frustrated with Public Health over handling of COVID-19 in Boyle Heights
The councilman elect says a pledge to serve a full council term, which he did not sign, was political ‘gimmickry’