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What does the leaked racist conversation tell us about local Los Angeles politics?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

And now to Los Angeles, where some of the most powerful names in Latino politics are caught in a racist scandal. Three city council members were caught on a leaked recording talking about the state of Latino political power and saying racist things. A warning - I'm about to repeat some of what was said to convey just how awful it was. The now former president of the Los Angeles City Council, Nury Martinez - she stepped down from that position over this - is heard using the term little darky to describe the Black son of a white city council member. She goes on to describe him as an accessory and a, quote, "little monkey." The two other council members present don't stop her. They participate in the conversation, as does a top labor leader in LA. The city's mayor, Eric Garcetti, and others are calling on Martinez and the two other council members to give up their seats.

For more on this, we're now joined by Gustavo Arellano. He's an LA Times columnist and wrote a scathing column about all this. Good morning, Gustavo.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Morning.

FADEL: So I just want to start with what you were thinking when you first heard this recording.

ARELLANO: Disgusted. I mean, when you are hearing words that you know are racist, have been around and you hear more and more insults - and these are elected officials, some of the most powerful Latinos in the country - you're just absolutely disgusted. And you think, what on earth are you saying and why? And if you hear the tape, it gets worse and worse and worse.

FADEL: What are the wider implications here? I mean, you write in your column, this isn't small-town politics here. And as you said, these four people are some of the most powerful politicians in the country. What are the big implications here?

ARELLANO: There is no trust right now of the political system in Los Angeles, in the city council. This is a city council where you've had other - you know, other council members indicted, other council members in scandals. And now you have the supposed liberal - even on the left - leaders, Democrats, caught up in stuff that you throw at Donald Trump, that you throw at Republicans. Like, how good of a politician can you be if you're using that exact same rhetoric and, in many cases, worse?

FADEL: Now, you point out the question of Latino representation, which was being discussed at this meeting, is legit in a city that's almost half Latino and only has about a third of the council. But this, using racist remarks attacking Black people basically, is not the way.

ARELLANO: No, this is a city that has long had racial tensions between Black and Latinos, and this helps nothing at all. And it's also goes counter, though, to recent movements in the - you know, just recently of politicians, Latinos saying, like, we need to make coalitions with...

FADEL: Yeah.

ARELLANO: ...Our Black council members because the population is getting smaller and smaller. So you respect what they've done in the past. They throw it all the way. And by the way, there's also insults against Oaxacans, Latinos themselves, calling them - this is Nury Martinez calling them ugly and small and short. Like...

FADEL: Yeah.

ARELLANO: ...There's insults against Armenians, LGBT folks, everything.

FADEL: No one was spared, it sounds like. So how does that impact these coalitions? All this coalition-building, as you point out, has been happening in the recent years about overlapping interests. How does that then impact this coalition-building?

ARELLANO: The silver lining is that everyone is disgusted. There's so little support for Nury Martinez, Kevin de Leon, Gil Cedillo, Ron Herrera, the labor leader. He resigned. And you have a younger generation of Latino politicians who have been fighting this old guard for the past couple years and saying, see? What did we tell you? Now it's our turn. But, you know, I have been following Latino politics in Southern California for decades, in terms of at least reading it. And this is something that happens again and again. Old guard falls down, the new guard comes up, say never again, and then it happens again.

FADEL: Now, the four people involved in this conversation that were on this tape, they've apologized. But what do you think - what else needs to happen in this case?

ARELLANO: They all need to go. I mean, they're - they will not - you know, just last night in LA City Hall, there was a vigil. I slept at 11 o'clock at night, and there was bands, there was candlelights, there was speeches. People are not going to let this go at all. Remember, we're only - what? - three days away from the release of this.

FADEL: Right.

ARELLANO: It's not going to go.

FADEL: Well, the last question before you go in the few seconds we have left - is there recovering from the lack of trust?

ARELLANO: You're going to have to talk to a lot of people. The fact that the Democratic Party of Los Angeles County is asking them, you have to step down - U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, who was the mentor to Nury Martinez, saying you have to step down. Everyone's telling them. But this ruins politics, especially Latino political power, for years, if not a long time. I'm not a politician. I don't see what's going to happen. But I know they're going to try.

FADEL: LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, thank you so much for your time.

ARELLANO: Gracias.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "UNSTUCK (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.