BY NOEMÍ PEDRAZA
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 and indictment 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 was suspended from his post. He has pleaded not guilty on 34 federal charges and is awaiting trial in September, but cannot be replaced on the City Council until he is found guilty or resigns.
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 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.
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?
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. T And that’s why they need a fighter in City Hall, that’s going to represent their views, their values, their dreams or aspirations.
BHB: I’d like to move on to the coronavirus crisis. Do you think that the lack of representation at City Hall has left CD 14 without resources that could help the community combat the pandemic?
KDL: What I will say is that I am very frustrated with the lack of leadership from the LA County’s Public Health Department when it comes to a lot of hotspots throughout the city of LA, but in particular Boyle Heights. It is a no brainer. In densely concentrated areas, where we have multi generations living under one roof, where we have a lot of poverty, where we have a lot of hard-working individuals who must work to survive, where [people] have a lot of pre-existing health conditions, where we have a large disparity between the haves and have nots, where we have, a lot of poverty… you need to saturate [communities like Boyle Heights] with COVID-19 PCR examinations on a continuous basis, they need to provide antibody testing, as well as PPE equipment and tracing as well. And I have seen a lack of leadership from the public health department. Boyle Heights [is] a community that has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
I call it the three-way tsunami. The first wave was when we had the shelter-in-place edict and virtually shut the economy down. The second wave is the high infection rate, and disproportionate mortality rate. And the third wave will be all the devastating cuts that will be made at the local county and state levels, because there’s no revenue coming into the coffers. And if there’s no revenues coming into the coffers, then all of a sudden there’ll be major cutbacks on programs that are so critical for communities such as ours.
There have been people making very critical decisions that I don’t believe did so in a strategic manner. They really have to concentrate an extraordinary amount of resources in communities such as Boyle Heights. And I say the LA County Department of Public Health, because the city does not have a Department of Health. That is under the jurisdiction of LA County, and that falls on the responsibility of the current public health director.
BHB: Councilman Gil Cedillo just recently announced a program where he was using some of his discretionary funds to provide resources for people in his district. CD-14 doesn’t have a council member right now doing anything. Aren’t there things that a councilmember could be doing for the community, that no one is doing?
KDL: That is true, but the vast majority of responsibility falls on the shoulders of LA County. What you see from CD 1 and Gill Cedillo, and perhaps other council members, is in addition to. It’s a layer or two above and beyond what the county is doing, because of the void of leadership at the county level.
At a micro level, if you wanted to say that the current council member is not using his discretionary dollars to deal with the issue COVID-19, that’s a fair question. If I were there, I would have contributed a large amount of money to dealing with antibody testing, in purchasing food for families who are desperate, especially our undocumented families who are not eligible for unemployment or any federal care dollars that have been coming down the pipeline.
BHB: What are some of the first measures that you hope to take once in office to help combat the crisis?
KDL: One of the things that I want to tackle, which I’m already trying to tackle right now, are the evictions, by supporting Proposition 21. And being a cosigner of Prop 21 along with Dolores Huerta. It’ll be on the ballot this year. When the moratorium [on evictions] expires, unless folks have the money saved up to pay for three, four or five months of back rent, there’s going to be a whole wave of evictions and therefore folks living on the streets.
BHB: You mentioned that you began your political life during the protests over proposition 187 back in 1994. Did you think about that during the recent unrest following George Floyd, and what changes have you seen in the Latino community since then?
KDL: There are similarities in terms of protests and tens of thousands of people on the streets raising their voices and indignation to an injustice, a history of injustice. And we’re living it right now under the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
The George Floyd murder is clearly an inflection point that deals with the historic pattern of abuse from local law enforcement agencies throughout the country. But it gives us an opportunity to reexamine the practices of abuse of our local law enforcement as well. There have been improvements in our LAPD, which has a historically sordid history… but it’s clear that we need to do much more.
This is a wonderful opportunity also to sort of reimagine the kind of district that we want, the kind of city that we want. This is an inflection point. So, it’s an opportunity that we can’t lose, we can let it slip through our fingers. This is an opportunity to re-examine and to revision, the kind of city that we truly want to be part of.
BHB: During the election you were criticized for not pledging to serve a full term as a member of the city council, through 2024. I’d like to ask you now, are you planning to run for mayor in 2022?
KDL: Right now, I don’t have any plans. I plan right now on being a great CD 14 council member representing my constituents. I think the criticism came from my opponents.
BHB: Why didn’t you pledge to serve a full term, like the other candidates?
KDL: Because my record speaks for itself. I’m not into gimmickry, I’m into results. I’m not into political performance theater. I’m into results. And my record demonstrates those results. And on March 3, you looked at the numbers. I think they spoke for themselves.