‘Rome Is Burning’: Antonio Villaraigosa Reflects on Furor Over Racist Remarks

Fallout continues over derogatory comments made by LA city council president, who has since resigned

Antonio Villaraigosa, a former mayor of LA and the first Latino to hold the position in more than 100 years when he took office in 2005, has long advocated for tearing down the divide between Black and Latino residents.
By Ella Ceron
October 16, 2022 | 04:27 PM

Bloomberg — The leaked recording of Los Angeles’s Latino city council president making racist and derogatory comments in a conversation with colleagues has sparked national outrage.

In the wake, Nury Martinez stepped down as council president and ultimately resigned from her council seat on Wednesday amid the deepening scandal over racist comments she made last year about a colleague’s young Black son as well as anti-Indigenous remarks. The revelations led to protests at City Hall and drew widespread public condemnation. (Two other councilmembers who took part in the conversation — Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León — have both resisted demands to step down, while another participant, LA County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, resigned this week.)

Antonio Villaraigosa, a former mayor of LA and the first Latino to hold the position in more than 100 years when he took office in 2005, was among the prominent figures who joined the chorus of outrage. He’s long advocated for tearing down the divide between Black and Latino residents.

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The controversy is the latest to sweep America’s second-largest city. Two former councilmembers have been accused of corruption and another pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, while LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination as ambassador to India has been stalled by accusations of harassment by a former aide.

Bloomberg spoke with Villaraigosa, an infrastructure adviser for California, about the current moment in LA politics. He has endorsed fellow Democrat and Congresswoman Karen Bass in Los Angeles’s current mayoral race. Her challenger in the Nov. 8 vote, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso, has pledged to clean up corruption and bring his business acumen to the city. Bass and Caruso both agree that all the councilmembers should resign from their elected positions.

Given that we’re now going on several days of new revelations and developments in the wake of the audio leaking, how do you think this is affecting people’s trust in the city council and of the governing bodies of Los Angeles?

Unfortunately, I think that there’s been a great deal of consternation regarding city leadership for some time. I’ve said that for many of us, it feels like Rome is burning and the city is adrift and I feel that strongly. I’m not condemning any one person or one political body. What I will say is that I think there’s a consensus around the notion we need new leadership. Obviously, the recent revelation of an audio that most of us have found reprehensible and outrageous, racist and divisive, has only served to add kerosene to a fire. But I think that fire has been burning for some time.

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The conversation and audio was after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. What does this current reckoning say about where we are with regards to diversity?

There’s no question that this episode has set us back. I also don’t think it’s reflective of the many people in this town who believe that the greatness of Los Angeles is its people. I think the fact that there are so many people outraged and protesting against the words, the painful words of these four individuals, is reflective that many of us believe in Martin Luther King’s maxim, that we should all be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin, that we are all human beings in the eyes of God, and that we ought to recognize that every one of us has a right to live here and to dream here and to strive for the American dream.

As soon as all of these individuals resign, we can start doing the hard work of rebuilding trust and working on really important issues facing all of us in this town, but particularly those communities that have been underserved.

What conversations do you hope people are having offline, whether it’s in corporate settings, at home, or with friends and family?

I think it’s important to have conversations and dialogue, but I’ve spent my life concretely working together. I’m supporting Karen Bass in no small part because we both were working to bridge the divide between African Americans and Latinos.

When I got elected, I said, I’m here today on the shoulders of others, of a civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta struggled so that I could be here today. I’m here on the shoulders of Tom Bradley. I believe strongly that it’s important for us to come together. What happened here is certainly disturbing and has so many of us outraged and angry. But I also think that there are a lot of us who are ready to get back to work.

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How might this moment impact election day? Do you think it will cause people to swing one way or the other when voting, or will it perhaps motivate or demotivate them to show up at the polls?

I’m not a political analyst, but I’d say to you that there’s one candidate that immediately, rather than finger-pointing and calling anyone names—though she did call for the resignation as I did—said, let’s get together and let’s work together to move our communities ahead. And that was Karen Bass. From my vantage point, I don’t know what impact it’s going to have. I do believe that people are looking for change and I think she represents that.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

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