Column: 'You cannot get close to' Kevin de León at his surreal, high-security election party

Los Angeles, California-March 5, 2024-Los Angeles councilmember Kevin de Leon speaks to FOX 11 reporter Cristy Fajardo outside his Primary Night party at Hecho en Mexico in El Sereno, CA on March 5, 2024 (Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León speaks to Fox 11 reporter Cristy Fajardo outside his primary night party at Hecho En Mexico in El Sereno on March 5, 2024. (Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

I heard the crowd inside Hecho En Mexico roar just past 11 p.m. as Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León's face flashed on the televisions inside the El Sereno restaurant. It was his Super Tuesday viewing party, and supporters were cheering their man's comeback for the ages.

Written off as political dead meat nearly 18 months ago, when a secretly recorded conversation was released that featured him and three other L.A. political bigwigs engaging in bigoted, conspiratorial rants, De León was in first place in his reelection race, according to early returns. The former state Senate leader and failed candidate for U.S. Senate and L.A. mayor had survived recall attempts, calls for his resignation from the streets of L.A. to the White House, a physical altercation with a community activist at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony and being stripped of committee assignments by colleagues trying to make him quit.

No unions, elected officials or major community leaders publicly endorsed De León. It didn't matter. Opponents had underestimated the grit and guile of someone who grew up poor, cut his teeth in the labor and immigrant rights movements and wasn’t about to leave the good life of politics just because a bunch of wokosos screamed at him. De León has spent the last year finally focusing on meat-and-potato issues — cleaning up streets, organizing food drives, finding shelter for the unhoused — instead of the blind ambition for higher office that had characterized so much of his career. He pounded the proverbial pavement and sent out so many city-funded, De León-branded mailers highlighting community resources and events — six times the amount of all the other council members combined, per the L.A. Public Press — that the U.S. Postal Service should give him a medal.

I heard the cheers for De León as I jogged toward Hecho En Mexico. I was late. I had spent the night caroming around the Eastside, visiting the shindigs of his three main rivals.

Read more: De León, Raman pull ahead; other L.A. City Council incumbents take big leads

In Eagle Rock, Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo and volunteers danced at her small campaign headquarters to upbeat tunes like “Despacito" and Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" even though she was in fourth place. Ysabel Jurado's supporters knocked back drinks at a Highland Park hipster bar while a small television aired the Reese Witherspoon cult classic “Election.” At Casa Fina in Boyle Heights, Assemblymember Miguel Santiago — who in early returns held a lead of fewer than 300 votes over Jurado for second place — thanked the alphabet soup's worth of unions that had contributed over half a million dollars in independent expenditures on his behalf. He then made the audience laugh by saying, “If you drink, get a ride home” — a not-so-subtle reference to Carrillo’s recent conviction for driving under the influence.

I saved De León's fiesta for last, partly because his campaign didn't publicly reveal the location, as Carrillo, Jurado and Santiago had for theirs. Hecho En Mexico was still packed, even though the official program had ended half an hour earlier. I tried to walk in when a beefy, bespectacled guy with a sour face blocked me. It was De León's communications director, Pete Brown.

“This is a private event,” he snapped. I flashed my press badge, but Brown wouldn’t budge or give me a reason why the media weren't allowed in. That's when I noticed that a lectern and a table blocked off easy access to the restaurant. Soon, two burly guys gathered around Brown. Then, a group of women lined up next to them. It was the most laughable blockade since the last time I played "Battleship."

I moved back a few steps to the sidewalk to think about what to do next. Soon, two security guards stood beside me and laughed. One said to me in Spanish, “They just told us, ‘That guy with the glasses? Don’t let him go inside.'"

A man talks to several people outdoors.
Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, center, greets people in line for a food distribution outside his office in Eagle Rock in 2023. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

For months, I had repeatedly asked Brown and De León's chief of staff, Jennifer Barraza, for an interview with De León to talk about the tape leak and my recent series on Latino political power in Los Angeles. They blew me off even though their boss freely speaks to my Times colleagues and other journalists. From what I hear, De León and his squad are angry at me because I have repeatedly said he should have resigned after the leaked tape and have also criticized his propensity to win a seat, then run for something more powerful.

It’s bad when a politician refuses to speak to the press, but it happens. It’s pathetic when one does so on election night, which is supposed to showcase our thriving democracy, with the free press as a cog in that engine.

If De León won’t allow the press to go inside his party, and sics a bunch of wannabe heavies on me just because I've written mean things about him, that shows he has learned nothing from the last year and a half except pettiness. Even former L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva — whom I savaged throughout 2022 as his career imploded — always took my questions and never banned me from any appearances, not even his primary night debacle that year. When a supposed progressive like De León makes Villanueva look good on anything, he should take a deep breath and wonder where it all went wrong.

Such a fragile, thin-skinned pol doesn't deserve to be in City Hall. Given that in early returns, 73% of voters in his district chose anyone but him, and Santiago is raring to blast his former ally, De León better toughen up.

Read more: Column: Nury, Kevin and Gil turn to the most weak salsa excuse of all for their racist remarks

I decided to stay outside Hecho En Mexico and talk to De León supporters. They walked past me as if I had cooties, or stared with disdain from inside the restaurant like I was a chupacabra. The only one who talked to me at length was a guy who gave his name as Arturo. I didn’t get his last name because he called me a gusano (literally "worm" but also understood as a Cuban Spanish slur meaning “traitor”) and a “f— a—,” whined about a De León column I wrote in 2018, claimed The Times was anti-Latino and hired me only so I could trash Latinos, and asserted that I wasn't allowed inside because I was a "party pooper."

Otherwise, we had a nice chat.

The party raged on when I noticed Fox 11 reporter Cristy Fajardo getting ready to appear on camera. Fajardo — a National Assn. of Hispanic Journalists board member — thought I had probably misunderstood what Brown told me. She approached him and asked if I could go in.

Nope. Thanks for trying, Cristy! And thanks for telling me to stick around when you were about to go live with De León.

The man of the night finally emerged wearing a dark blue suit, a shirt of the same tone unbuttoned at the top of his chest and a giddy smile. Brown joined him, along with another man who stood next to the older security guard and glared at me. I had begun to take photos when the younger security guard approached me.

“You cannot get close to him,” he said in a sharp tone, telling me to get off the sidewalk. I reminded him that sidewalks are public property and reiterated what I had said. I was there to do my job, not to cause a scene — that was being done by De León’s people — and I understood he was just following orders.

The security guard pulled down his balaclava. A pained, guilty look took over his face. “Just don’t get close, OK?” he finally sputtered.

De León did his interview, grinning and gesturing with no worry in the world. As he turned to go back inside, I yelled, "How are you feeling?"

He winked and didn't say a word.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.