Column: You said you were the anti-De León, Wendy. You're more like a disappointment

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 1, 2022 - - California State Assembly member Wendy Carrillo attends a Town Hall meeting at Glassell Park Center in Los Angeles on October 1, 2022. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo during a 2022 town hall at Glassell Park Center (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The L.A. politics chisme mill flooded my phone with texts and calls this morning. Was it true that Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving?

My immediate thought:

Not Wendy.

Not the candidate for the L.A. City Council 14th District seat held by Kevin de León in a race that’s roiling Eastside politics.

Not the Roosevelt High and Cal State Los Angeles graduate who loves to speak to students and community groups to let Latinas know that more of them are needed in politics.

Not the former radio personality who used to host a public affairs show on Power 106 called “Knowledge Is Power” that profiled local heroes and urged Latinos to uplift our community at all times.

Not the daughter of Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants who has fought the good fight in Sacramento for undocumented Californians and to get restitution for women sterilized by the state without their consent.

Yep, Wendy. The chisme turned out to be true.

Carrillo, 43, was booked Friday morning on suspicion of driving under the influence and being involved in a traffic collision while having a high blood-alcohol count — in other words, double the legal limit or more. A law enforcement source said that police responded around 1:30 a.m. to the 6200 block of Monterey Road near Highland Park, where a motorist had struck two parked cars.

In a statement released before she left jail, Carrillo apologized, though she didn’t say anything about an arrest or allegedly driving while intoxicated. “I must adhere to a higher standard that demands personal accountability for my conduct and I accept responsibility for my actions,” Carrillo wrote. “I intend to seek the necessary help and support.”

Read more: 'Double the legal limit': Assemblymember, L.A. council candidate arrested on suspected DUI

Oy vey, Wendy.

Considered one of De León's two main challengers, her arrest will inevitably launch a sea of "Wino Wendy" opposition mailers from now until the March primary. Whether her chances are kaput is something Eastside voters get to decide — if she stays in the race. But she can no longer claim the moral high ground against De León, who's still trying to move on after he mocked Black political power on a leaked tape that upended City Hall.

It's one thing to be caught talking bigoted trash in a secretly recorded conversation. It's another to get behind the wheel after too many drinks and crash into the night.

That stain to Carrillo's reputation and career is permanent. She's no longer going to be thought of as just a homegrown champion of the Eastside. She's the latest Latina politician to make her constituents proud, then embarrass them with stupid falls from grace that never had to happen.

In 2018, it was Bell-area Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, who was stripped of her committee assignments after being investigated for allegedly sexually harassing a male staffer years earlier. Though cleared of that charge, Garcia was found to have violated the Assembly's sexual harassment policy for “commonly and pervasively” using foul language.

Last year, it was then-L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez, the first Latina to hold that position and someone who reveled in presenting herself as la más chingona — the boss bitch — of City Hall. She resigned after she appeared on the same tape as De León, uttering anti-Black and anti-Oaxacan nonsense.

This summer, Riverside City Councilmember Clarissa Cervantes was arrested for the second time on drunk driving charges just weeks after having told a judge, "Each day I carry remorse and promise to never repeat those actions.” That hasn’t stopped the 32-year-old from continuing to run for the Assembly seat held by her sister, Sabrina.

Now, Wendy.

Politicians of all genders and ethnicities mess up, of course. But Carrillo’s arrest is especially disappointing, coming in a year where Los Angeles lost two legendary Latina politicians: former L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina and former Assemblymember Cindy Montañez. The two leaned on their backgrounds to fight against a racist, macho world that would be better if only more mujeres had a say in it.

Molina and Montañez were beloved precisely because they held themselves to a higher standard as Latinas, because allies and enemies alike knew that they were true public servants — no way would they get caught violating the public’s trust, whether on or off the job.

Driving while boozed up as an elected official is as bad a middle finger to regular folk as you can give.

You're always a fool if you drink and drive. In this day and age of Uber and Lyft, you’re a straight-up pendejo. When you’re a politician and do that, you probably shouldn't be in office. Constituents entrust to you the responsibility of devising policy and making things run right. The last thing they need to worry about is you smashing into their cars early in the morning.

Wendy Carrillo in Eastside
Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo shows murals that are defaced by grafitti in Boyle Heights (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

It's especially maddening that Carrillo got caught up in an easily avoidable mistake. In 2020, she was reprimanded by then-Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon for "unwelcome" behavior after she was accused of inappropriately hugging and kissing an employee. Did she not realize that opponents have had her under a microscope ever since?

It’s even more frustrating when you consider that Carrillo can lean on mentors like state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo and former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and a roster of friends across the Eastside, whenever she needs help. Did no one in that circle think to have a handler around Carrillo at every public appearance, in the lead-up to one of the most contentious political races to hit the Eastside in decades?

I’m sadly familiar with drunk driving arrests. Friends have lost their jobs and relationships. My father was collared at least twice when I was a young child, although he's been sober now for over 40 years. Carrillo should take whatever legal penalties may come her way and not ask for any special treatment. Then, she should spend the rest of her life and career urging everyone not to drink and drive — and offer herself as a cautionary tale.

Already, calls are coming for Carrillo to drop out of the council race, and even resign her Assembly post. She probably won't, but she should at least think about it — as a lesson in humility, and as a reminder of what could've been.

I still remember when she and I met at her family home in Boyle Heights in the spring, after she told me she was running for City Council. We walked down Avenida Cesar Chavez, where shopkeepers and pedestrians greeted her with genuine joy.

Read more: Column: Wendy Carrillo explains why she's running against her former ally, Kevin de León

She cast herself as the anti-De León, someone who wouldn't embarrass Latinos and the Eastside with hubris — and she also claimed the Eastside deserved someone who actually cared. We saw streets in disrepair, trash inside planters, historic murals tagged beyond recognition.

“It’s not even about Kevin,” Carrillo said then. “It’s about respecting this community.”

A DUI arrest is not respecting the community. All you had to do was call an Uber.

Ay, Wendy.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.