Column: From Latino lion to Chicanosaurus: The sad fall of Gil Cedillo
The first time Gil Cedillo speaks at length in the most notorious leaked audio in Los Angeles City Hall history, he discusses the joy of being a proud papi.
“I did [an] interview the other day ... and said I’m a grandfather, and I have a 47-year-old son, and a 2½-year-old little girl," the Los Angeles City Council member said, four minutes into the conversation.
“Estás loca con esa niña,” said Nury Martinez, Cedillo’s then-council colleague — you’re crazy about that little girl.
“Look at these curls! You like these curls?” Cedillo soon exclaimed, apparently scrolling through his phone for a photo and eventually getting Martinez — who proclaimed she never particularly cared for “that whole little kid s— " — to admit that yes, she thought the hairstyle was cute.
It was a Cedillo I had never heard. And it was a rare moment of sweetness in a conversation that exposed an ugly, racialized view of Los Angeles politics.
For more than 40 years, Cedillo has been a lion of the Latino Left in California. His life mirrored and influenced the rise of Mexican American political power in Los Angeles and beyond.
As an activist, organizer, Assemblymember, state senator and council member, Cedillo's deep, gravelly voice righteously inveighed against alt-losers and do-nothing Republicans in defense of the undocumented and the working class. He even pushed back against fellow Democrats in his most famous battle: allowing immigrants in the country illegally to apply for California driver's licenses.
Cedillo was what a politician should be: of the pueblo, by the pueblo, for the pueblo. Now, he was going on and on about how his daughter was "the boss" and "in charge."
After about a minute of tolerating the goo-goo-ga-ga talk, Martinez moved on to the business of the night: a strategy session about redistricting with Cedillo, fellow Councilmember Kevin de León and then-L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera.
The world knows what happened next.
The audio — recorded over a year ago but emerging only recently — has upended Los Angeles politics. Martinez and Herrera resigned from their posts, and the shouts for Cedillo and De León to do the same grow louder and louder.
Most media coverage has focused on Martinez, whose torrent of insults against Black people, Oaxacans, whites and her political opponents sounded like Don Rickles without the warmth.
But the tape also reveals Cedillo's sad denouement, which was underway even before the scandal broke.
After his baby-speak ended, the Cedillo who emerged wasn't the pugnacious populist of yore but a petty, paranoid, pathetic pol.
He didn’t say much during the hour-plus conversation. His most insulting remarks landed on Armenians — when someone couldn’t remember a political consultant’s last name, he joked that it “ends in I-A-N, I bet you” — and Oaxacans, whom he mocked as “little ones” who are now “wearing shoes.”
The rest of the time, Cedillo spoke in the mewls of a man who once roared.
He said of the Service Employees International Union, the largest public employee union in Los Angeles County, that everything with them “starts 100% suspect," standing his ground when someone scoffed.
“Come on, man,” Cedillo replied. “I know this stuff. 100% suspect.”
In the early 1990s, Cedillo was SEIU's general manager. In that vital role, he helped shape the Southern California labor movement into the organizing and political behemoth it is today, leaving after union leaders fired him because of his popularity with the rank and file.
Cedillo brought up a recent incident at a park where 30 protestors "bumrushed the fence and the gates." Activists have hounded him in recent years over accusations that he's too cozy with developers, as gentrification and homelessness take root in his northeast L.A. district.
"Leave them," he said, "and lock them in."
"There's no way for them to charge their Teslas before they go back home to Silver Lake," De León responded.
"Where are they going to take a s—?" Martinez cracked.
This wasn't the Cedillo who found his political awakening at UCLA in the 1970s as a member of MEChA, the Chicano activist group that included his longtime friend, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and yours truly. Who staged raucous rallies as a labor leader and was arrested near Los Angeles International Airport during a 2006 sit-in on Century Boulevard to protest the treatment of immigrant hotel workers. Who helped marry state Democratic politics with the immigrant rights movement and turn California the vibrant blue it is today.
When it came to redistricting, Cedillo joined the others in asserting that the way to protect Latino representation was to chip away at Black representation.
“Unlike 25 years ago on, we do have a Mexican in charge of the [L.A. County Labor] Fed,” he said. “We have a Mexican in charge of the council. We have more members on the council. We're in a different spot now than we were 25 years ago. The thing for us is to exercise our power."
Then he went further than even Martinez.
“The seats on this [South L.A.] corridor, historic African American, which I could support, one, maybe two [Black council members] — those are Latino seats,” Cedillo continued. “Fifty-seven out of 60 seats that African Americans are in ... are Latino seats,” he said.
“From the Comptons to the Gardenas to South L.A. ...you can't throw a rock and not hit a Mexican [in South L.A.]," he added.
When Herrera — whose reedy voice sounded just like Old Hollywood archvillain Peter Lorre — suggested that Latinos could pick up the 15th District held by Councilmember Joe Buscaino, Cedillo moved the conversation back to South L.A.
He wanted a Latino candidate “who grew up there ... Not the ones who went to Yale and then come back and parachute in. But real people who grew up there.”
Quite a sentiment considering that Cedillo, like me, has an elite education from UCLA.
I became more and more dismayed the longer I listened. Cedillo, 68, had long been a visionary. Now, he sounded like a Chicanosaurus, a person woefully out of his element. Nowhere was that more evident than when the subject turned to his reelection opponent, 32-year-old first-time candidate Eunisses Hernandez.
At that point in his career, Cedillo shouldn't have had to worry about an upstart. De León dismissed Hernandez as a nobody he'd never met; Martinez said he "didn't know her."
Cedillo knew the threat that Hernandez posed. He went on and on about how redistricting might affect his reelection, especially if gentrifying, increasingly white neighborhoods were included in his territory.
“I can't go to Eagle Rock. I can’t go to Highland Park. They don’t like me,” he said.
Addressing De León, Cedillo whined that the redistricting maps before him “dumps headaches from you and Mitch [O'Farrell, acting
L.A. City Council president] to me. So you guys are giving me your headaches."
Martinez tried to reassure him that the labor leaders who drew up a particular map wouldn't screw him over. He finally calmed down.
“I would not mess with this process,” he said. “Let it end, and then let us resolve it.”
The matter was resolved in June, when Cedillo lost to Hernandez. She's scheduled to take over his seat at the beginning of December.
Some readers and friends are already telling me that Cedillo deserves more respect than his cohorts — don't sully a legend, you know?
But that's why we must all criticize him. His place in history is secure, but his legacy isn’t.
Gil, resign. Do some good right now during this final, shameful chapter of your career. The longer you stay, the more we forget the champion you were. I urge you to remember a saying from our MEChA roots — la unión hace la fuerza.
Unity makes strength.
Your arrogance and ignorance in refusing to step down are dividing the city and the community you profess to serve.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.