Opinion: The Rise and Fall of California Career Politician Kevin de León

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Kevin de Leon
U.S. Senate candidate Kevin de León greets Democratic delegates on their way to cast ballots for the 2018 Senate. Photo by Chris Stone

Politicians can be Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. They can be liberal or conservative, smart or dull, honest or corrupt, efficient or stupid.

However, a very telling characteristic is whether they have a sense of personal identity independent of their political career, or whether their career is their identity.

For the former, politics is a civic duty, but it does not define them as human beings. Even if they lose office, they just go on with their lives, former presidents Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush being prime examples.

Those whose sense of self is intertwined with their political careers are a different breed. Quite often they come from modest backgrounds and find opportunity in politics. However, they demand constant validation, constantly fear losing their defining positions, and often go to extraordinary lengths to maintain them. Think Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.

This brings us to Kevin de León, the archetypal political upstart who first revealed his need for validation by adding a “de” to his last name to give it a classier vibe.

De León won a seat in the state Assembly in 2006, tried and failed to become Speaker of the House, moved to the state Senate in 2010, and became pro-dark Senate President in 2014. However, his need continued. The flamboyant “inauguration” ceremony he held after taking office was an obvious cry for attention, and he openly resented the media criticism he meted out to him.

Facing the loss of his Senate seat in 2018 due to term limits, de León challenged one of the state’s most prominent politicians, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Their fight took place on several levels – Latino vs. white man, progressive vs. moderate, young vs. older, male vs. career-is-everything, very ambitious challenger.

Despite losing her party’s endorsement, Feinstein stymied de León, but quickly rose to a seat on the Los Angeles City Council and ran for mayor this year, ending the race.

De León’s political career may now be over. Leaked tapes of a political strategy meeting of four Latino political figures revealed racist discussions about how to limit black political power in a predominantly Latino city. It set off a firestorm of denunciations from major political figures, including President Joe Biden, and calls for the participants to resign.

Council President Nury Martinez complied, as did Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, but de León and Councilman Gil Cedillo declined. Cedillo lost his seat in the June primary and will be gone in a few weeks anyway, but de León insists he will stay on the council.

“My duty is to represent my constituents,” he told a television interviewer on Sunday. “They are the ones who elected me. If they are the ones who say I have to leave, I will respect their decision.”

De León asked new council president Paul Krekorian if he could take a leave of absence while keeping his seat.

Krekorian’s response was blunt: “You cannot return to the council without causing further damage and disruption. There is no way forward that includes your continued participation on this council… Every day you stay interferes with the council’s ability to function, delays the city’s healing process, hurts your constituents, and diminishes your chance to redeem yourself and your legacy.”

De León began his political career in the 1990s as an advocate for immigrant rights after voters approved Proposition 187, which would have banned public services for undocumented immigrants. However, somewhere he turned into a careerist self-view.

CalMatters is public interest journalism committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.


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