Column: Why Wendy Carrillo says her DUI was a 'blessing in disguise'

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The tears dripped down Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo’s cheeks almost as soon as she leaned against a couch to recount for me the most humiliating day of her life.

Tears of embarrassment, for being booked into jail Nov. 3 on suspicion of driving under the influence after she crashed into two parked cars in northeast Los Angeles and was found to have a blood-alcohol count at least twice the legal limit.

Tears of shame, as she remembered reading humiliating headlines and meeting disappointed family and friends in the days that followed.

Tears of regret, as Carrillo acknowledged how she had hurt her chances in a hotly contested City Council race for the 14th District, which swings from downtown to the Eastside to Eagle Rock. She’s third place in fundraising in an eight-candidate field, behind incumbent Kevin de León and fellow Assemblymember Miguel Santiago.

“I felt like I let everybody down,” Carrillo, 43, remembered thinking while sitting in a holding cell in the LAPD’s downtown Metropolitan Detention Center. “I let myself down. My career is over. My campaign’s over. Like, what did I do?”

Above all, she cried out of gratitude during our one-hour chat — for an ordeal Carrillo now describes as a “blessing in disguise” that ultimately bettered her life.

“Looking at a shiny silver toilet in jail,” Carrillo said, no hint of humor in her voice, “is an incredibly sobering moment. But I’m just grateful to God that no one was hurt. It’s only through the grace of God that I’m alive.”

I arranged the interview because I wanted to check in on a politician I’ve been friendly with for years yet didn’t hesitate to lambaste after her accident. I told her I took no joy in writing what I did, but that she deserved no favors or sympathy for such a boneheaded, reckless move.

“When you said that I was a bigger disappointment than (De León), I was like, ‘It’s not wrong,’ ” she said, referring to her opponent’s role in a racist conversation captured on tape that led to widespread calls for his resignation.

We spoke at her campaign headquarters, a cute 103-year-old Eagle Rock house she’s renting through the March 5 primary because it’s cheaper than a storefront. Foldout tables covered with laptops filled two rooms. Whiteboards listed events to attend, tasks to finish. Carrillo was dressed in a white blouse and navy blue power suit and wore her feathered hair parted in the middle. Usually wisecracking and warm, Carrillo was subdued this time — yet looked more at peace than I had seen her in years.

The house was less than two miles away from The Offbeat Bar in Highland Park, where state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara hosted a fundraiser that doubled as his birthday party that November night. There, Carrillo said, she drank two Maker’s Marks with soda water, when all she had in her stomach was a protein shake, diet pills, a sip of wine from a previous event and a small slice of pizza.

“No one thought that I was intoxicated,” she said when I asked why she didn’t call an Uber or a friend to take her home to Boyle Heights. “I didn’t think I was intoxicated.”

Carrillo has no recollection of the crash, because she had passed out behind the wheel. She woke up when her airbags deployed. Soon, “people’s iPhones were in my face.”

Carrillo didn’t shy away from any of my questions, including details that made her the object of online ridicule. Why did she tell police officers at the scene that a sneeze caused the accident? She wasn’t trying to make an excuse, she said — sneezing was on her mind, since winds had triggered her allergies.

How did she feel about officers telling bystanders that they were taking her to the Hollenbeck police station in Boyle Heights to continue her sobriety test in private? “That was their decision, not mine.”

Why did she walk out of the Metropolitan Detention Center the following afternoon in jail-issued flip-flops and a face mask? Covid protocols were in effect, and officers made Carrillo take off her heels at the Hollenbeck station.

Why didn’t Carrillo respond to my colleague David Zahniser as she left the jail, when he asked if she would still run for City Council? “I had no idea how to answer at the moment.”

More important: Why? Why would she throw away everything for something completely avoidable?

Carrillo straightened up. Her eyes began to water again. A friend brought over a wad of tissues.

“I met with my attorney, and he asked me, ‘Do you think you have a drinking problem?’ ” Carrillo said she immediately replied no — then stopped to think.

“I fly up to Sacramento on Sundays. I like to cook, and when I cook, I pour myself a glass of wine,” she said. “Monday, there’s fundraisers, there’s drinks. Tuesdays: fundraisers and dinners — there’s drinks.”

Every single day, drinks.

“And so for the past seven years [that she has been in office], that’s been my norm, and it wasn’t before,” Carrillo continued. “And so I’ve come to learn that I’ve been harming my body in an effort to compete in this world [of politics]. The culture of this work and how negotiations are done — and how we move forward on policy and how we negotiate a win — too often includes alcohol.”

She pleaded no contest to DUI on Jan. 19, with prosecutors dropping a second charge of driving with a blood-alcohol count of 0.08% or higher.

As part of her plea agreement, Carrillo must attend a three-month driving-under-the-influence program, with her driver’s license restricted to work and the program. She must also attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving class, perform 50 hours of community service and pay $2,000 in restitution.

The Assembly member now regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and meets with a psychologist. She also enrolled in a substance abuse program on her own, “where I pee into a cup every Monday.”

“I didn’t realize that it had become a problem until it was,” Carrillo said. “So I have two options. I can look in the mirror and cry and realize, ‘You are hurting yourself,’ or to ignore it and be in denial and pretend that it’s not an issue or a problem. And I chose the first.”

I asked if the criticisms against her were unfair. “To an extent,” she replied.

How so?

“You look at a headline, you look at the blood-alcohol content, you look —‘She’s coming from a party. She crashed into a car,’ ” she quietly said. “How are you going to know that I’m stressed, that I’m anxious, that I haven’t slept, that I haven’t eaten, that I’m working my ass off, that I’m, you know, just grinding for 12, 14, 16 hours a day? Because that’s also the reality of being an elected and running for office and doing all of it at the same time. And it’s become such a normalized way of being. How would you know any of that?”

It sounded as if she was fishing for sympathy, I said.

“I think it’s more like empathy, whether I’m an elected or not,” Carrillo responded. “I made a human error that has nothing to do with what I do for a living. I also have done a lot of work in the restorative justice space. And I’ve always said the worst moment in someone’s life does not define who they are.”

She paused. “If I had a very public fall, I can potentially also have a very public rise. But I have to do the work.”

I returned to her statement about the crash being a “blessing in disguise.” Will she still say that if she doesn’t win the council race?

“The blessing is that I recognize how I was harming myself. And the fact that I get to also be now in a better place. I’m glad that I’m seeking the help that I needed to be better.”

I’m glad she’s in a better place — so why continue with the stress of a high-profile campaign?

She admitted that she had thought about dropping out to work on herself. Then a friend suggested that she should just run for reelection in her Assembly seat, where a victory would be far easier.

“And I remember thinking, ‘That’s not why I ran.’ I didn’t run for Assembly so that I could be an Assembly member or be an elected. I ran because I wanted to make a difference in my community. And I’m running for City Council now because this is my neighborhood. [Here are] my hopes, my community. And if the voters choose to elect me, praise God. And if they choose not to, that’s OK, too, right?

“And yes, I made a mistake — a big one. I don’t deny it. I take full responsibility and ownership, but I am a better person for it today. And I recognize what so many people are going through, because I’m living it.”

She pulled out a red chip from her pocket with gold lettering. The center read “90 Days.” Above and below was the AA mantra, “One Day at a Time.”

For the first time in our interview, Carrillo smiled. “They say 90 days of sobriety is when the magic begins.”

Since she quit, she has helped friends come to terms with their own drinking problems — and discovered a lack of recovery programs on the Eastside, and for Latinos. Those are issues she plans to work on during her remaining time in the Assembly and that she will continue to address if elected to the City Council.

“If my very public experience is helping someone recognize their own stuff, that’s also a blessing,” Carrillo said, still holding her sobriety chip. “If people feel comfortable in talking to me about it, that’s a blessing.”

Her eyes glistened anew. Her voice cracked. “Not the thing that I thought would connect me to community? But it has, and I’m owning it.”

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