Leadership is about more than just occupying a chair on the dais. We saw an illustration of that on June 9 when, at the height of the local protests over racial injustice, a parade of speakers participated in the public comments portion of the Santa Clarita City Council meeting, calling for the resignation of Councilman Bob Kellar over comments he made in 2010 at a rally opposing illegal immigration.
I’ve known four out of the five council members for more than 20 years apiece, including Kellar. I’ve always liked them, as individuals, and on the whole I think they genuinely care about serving the community and doing the right things to make the city a better place to live, for all residents.
But frankly, in that June 9 meeting, when it comes to leadership, 60% of our council whiffed.
First, a little context: In 2010, speaking at a rally to oppose illegal immigration, Kellar gave a speech that lives in infamy. You can easily find it on YouTube if you want to hear the whole thing.
In that 2010 speech, Kellar recounted how he had previously quoted Teddy Roosevelt at a council meeting, advocating for “one flag, one language.”
He then said, “You know, the only thing I heard back from a couple of people? ‘Bob, you sound like a racist.’ I said, ‘That’s good. If that’s what you think I am, because I happen to believe in America, I’m a proud racist. You’re darn right I am.’”
I wasn’t with The Signal at the time — this was during my 11-year detour into public relations — but I remember reading the news stories and the absolute S-storm that followed. I thought for sure it was the end of Kellar’s career in local politics.
It wasn’t. He was re-elected in 2012, and again in 2016. He plans to retire from the council after his current term ends this November.
In those 2010 remarks, Kellar wasn’t talking about race relations in general. It looked like what he was trying to say was (I think), if you believe opposing illegal immigration makes him a racist, then you can go ahead and think that if you want.
Contrary to what many say, opposing illegal immigration does not necessarily make one a racist. But man, you sure as hell shouldn’t say it the way Bob said it. Not then, not now. It’s indefensible. As far as I know, he’s never walked it back. Should have. Still should.
It’s popped up here and there on social media since then, usually around election time. Fast forward to June 2020: Protesters have been objecting to the despicable murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, and a consensus is rapidly developing that something must change to end the disproportionate use of force against black criminal suspects around the country.
Bob’s “proud racist” comment was resurrected on social media, and a growing number of people started calling for his resignation.
They took those demands to the public forum during the June 9 council meeting, and once the opening public comment period ended, it was time for council members’ comments.
Councilwoman Marsha McLean was up first, and she said she decided not to say anything because, “I’m not going to get myself into trouble.”
Councilwoman Laurene Weste talked about parks and trails, and restaurants reopening, and Fourth of July parades.
Whiff. Way to read the room, Laurene.
McLean and Weste later piggybacked on fellow council members’ subsequent comments about racism, but those initial responses — their first opportunities to say something, in the moment — are what people will remember most.
Third to speak was Mayor Pro Tem Bill Miranda. He was the first to make contact with the issue at hand. He spoke eloquently, recalling his experiences growing up as a Latino in the 1960s. It seemed sincere and heartfelt, and he sought to create unity.
Miranda said he was proud of the peaceful protests that had taken place in Santa Clarita the preceding days, and expressed support for the county’s “8 Can’t Wait” initiative for police reform.
“We want everyone in our city to feel you are being seen, heard and supported,” he said. “I do not want us to have a reputation of being a racist city. We’re not a racist city; we can prove we’re not a racist city. And I’m sorry for all of those speakers who feel that we are.”
He said he had talked to Kellar about his “proud racist” comments (although he never mentioned Kellar by name) and said he does not believe his fellow councilman is a racist. He said he believes in second chances.
“I believe a person can grow from what they said or thought or meant 10 years ago to the realization of what is happening today in our world, in our country, in our community. And I believe in forgiveness,” Miranda added. “And if I could sit here next to that person and say I am convinced that person is not a racist, and you can argue all you want, but I wouldn’t be here if I thought this person was a white supremacist or a racist. I know this person.”
Even if you feel Miranda should have demanded Kellar’s resignation because you’ll be satisfied with nothing less than your pound of flesh, it bears acknowledging that, in that moment, when there was really only one subject to discuss, Miranda didn’t duck it, like McLean did, or divert away from it, like Weste did. He displayed leadership, even if you might disagree with him.
Then it was Kellar’s turn. He had basically three options: resign; try to make amends and atone for what he said 10 years ago; or continue refusing to acknowledge he did anything wrong, object to his comments being taken out of context, and point fingers.
Kellar chose Option 3.
He recounted his record of military service, as a police officer and council member. He reiterated that he is not a racist and his 2010 remarks were taken out of context, and said he’s also very saddened by what happened in Minnesota.
Notably, though, his response included this cringe-worthy moment: He blamed the calls for his resignation on a “couple of high school girls” who stirred it up.
“Truth is these young ladies do not have a clue as to who I am, what I have done in my life, or what this country called America is all about.”
It was dismissive and condescending. Bob, you did everything except to tell those kids to get off your damn lawn.
This was a chance to say something like, “What I said was wrong. I still oppose illegal immigration, and we can debate that, but saying it that way 10 years ago was insensitive and ill-advised. I need to be better. I’d like to meet with my opponents and learn about the issues we face, so we can move forward together in the spirit of harmony for residents of all colors.”
Whiff. Opportunity missed.
That’s three strikeouts in the first four at-bats, if you’re keeping score for our City Council.
Last to speak was Mayor Cameron Smyth, who echoed Miranda in being proud that the local protests were peaceful. He didn’t directly address the Kellar question, but called for initiatives to address racial issues. He agreed to meet with the organizers of the local protests, “to listen and learn,” with the goal of engaging in a productive conversation and creating a more inclusive community.
“Words matter, and we need to acknowledge that as community leaders,” he said. “And I firmly believe it’s our diversity that makes us a stronger community. And I think it’s important that we make a few things clear here in Santa Clarita, and that the city of Santa Clarita denounces racism in all its forms. Period. Hard stop.”
That hard stop — it’s also a start.
The mayor was trying to be responsive to constituents, and to lead the city in the right direction. So was Miranda. Unfortunately, that’s just two out of five council members who, on June 9, seemed to immediately grasp the gravity of the moment, and remembered what our elected leaders are supposed to do:
Tim Whyte is the editor of The Signal. To view all of his recent columns, click here.