Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León sits in chamber before starting the council meeting on Oct. 11. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

This is an awful moment for Los Angeles — our divisiveness, ugly racial politics, backroom dealing exposed. Here in Little Tokyo it’s sadness and a sense of déjà vu. It’s happening again.

Once again, our councilmember is under a dark cloud, committee assignments stripped, an empty chair in council chambers. And a neighborhood still struggling with so many issues must wait once more to see what happens next.

There was a certain terrible symmetry on Wednesday that as the city waited to hear whether Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo would resign, former Councilmember Jose Huizar’s brother agreed to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about receiving envelopes of cash in the racketeering case. When de León ran for Council District 14 in 2020, one of the most important issues was restoring trust and the full powers of the office after Huizar — to have a representative who would be there to fight for what’s best for Little Tokyo.

De León is refusing to resign and says he wants to be part of the healing that needs to take place. Of course, the problem is that those individuals and communities who have been most hurt can only see a way forward if de León and Cedillo follow Nury Martinez out of City Hall.

Mike Bonin, whose adopted Black son was so heinously slurred, called de León’s recent apologies  “gaslighting of the highest order.”

So what happens next?

In February 2020 (boy, none of us could have imagined then what the year would bring) I had the honor of moderating a debate for the five candidates running in the CD 14 election at the Tateuchi Democracy Center. During the discussion, Chris Komai astutely observed that the election was the most consequential for Little Tokyo in decades because of the stakes, namely the affordable housing and homeless crises, and all the projects in development in the neighborhood over the decade such as Metro Regional Connector, Mangrove and the First Street North Apartments. There is also the $2 billion Cold Storage project that will dwarf Centenary to the south on Fourth and Central Avenue and the West Santa Ana Branch rail line.

De León and his staff have seen us through the pandemic and Little Tokyo is once again a vibrant and busy place. Innovation such as outdoor al fresco dining created safe spaces for patrons to support small businesses. It reminds me of what Councilmember Marqueese Harris-Dawson said last week, with empathy, even as all express outrage at the racist comments: “They have a body of work that sort of gets overlooked in the heat of this particular moment.”

It hasn’t been without bumps in the road. The encampment of unhoused at Toriumi Plaza has been a continuing source of discord and the recent difficult rollout of the CIRCLE program on First Street was marked by a lack of communication between the city and stakeholders.

I can’t see how this improves as our councilmember takes time away to continue his process of healing and atonement, nor can it benefit Little Tokyo to go through a drawn-out recall process or be without true representation … again.

* * *

The last councilmember to represent Little Tokyo without a major scandal was Jan Perry and there are many times I rue the fact that term limits have meant that having a solid leader in City Hall for years and years is no longer possible.

Ten years ago, Perry and Bernard Parks fought what seemed to be a lonely, futile battle against Herb Wesson and redistricting that ended up removing Little Tokyo from the 9th Council District and dividing Koreatown into the 10th and 13th Council Districts. Backroom deals led to uniting Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo under Huizar. And we all know how that worked out.

Back then, hundreds of Korean American residents and activists waited for hours before they were allowed into the chambers, rendered invisible during a discussion that would have lasting impact on their community.

Asians, invisible in 2012, are once again not part of the conversation in 2022.

In a statement last week, 17 Asian American leaders, led by Rep. Judy Chu, pleaded with those running for office to “not add fuel to an already politically charged environment and to recognize that what Los Angeles needs are leaders who can unite our city.”

This message is even more critical now for the Asian community, which has been targeted with horrific anti-Asian hatred and violence. With blood spilled and broken bodies, we are demanding fair representation and accountability. The tragedy is that the failure of our leaders to uphold basic moral standards leads to disillusionment in the whole process of governance and small “d” democracy at a time when democracy itself is under attack.

If there is any bright spot in this whole mess, it’s that the racist comments expose all of the ugliness that is usually hidden. It has led us to this moment of outrage and the hope for genuine reform.

The zero-sum game of winners and losers in redistricting has to stop. But past history has left me skeptical that this can actually be accomplished.


Gwen Muranaka, senior editor of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at gwen@rafu.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of  The Rafu Shimpo.

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