Lost Drama in Voting Rights Suit

The voice on the telephone was as clear--and as angry--as always.

You got it wrong, he said. You were careless. You meant to get it wrong. You've always had it in for me. I won that election fair and square.

His name is Ernest Debs. From 1958 until 1974, he was a Los Angeles County supervisor, representing the 3rd District, which extends from East Los Angeles to Westwood and Bel-Air and over the Santa Monica Mountains into the San Fernando Valley.

If there is a single person who is central to the Justice Department's Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the county, it is this ruddy, white-haired, irascible man who ran his domain in the reward-your-friends, punish-your-enemies manner of an old political boss.

The trial of that lawsuit is slowly ending. The Justice Department and their fellow plaintiffs, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, have completed their cases. Now, the county is presenting its side to Judge David Kenyon. But something has been missing through the days of tedious testimony--the coherent unveiling of what actually is a great political story, a saga of old intrigues and back-room deals.

It stars Ernie Debs, now in his 80s and retired. Debs dominated the Board of Supervisors with his cunning, his political fund-raising, his temper and his raw power. He sputtered in anger when he was confronted with unfriendly questions. Current Supervisor Pete Schabarum might be fierce in such situations. Debs was fearsome.

The saga starts with Debs' long-count victory over Ed Roybal for a vacant seat the 1958 supervisorial election. Before that election was over, there were four recounts. I wrote a while back about the election, and the allegations of fraud that accompanied it. And Debs, in our phone conversation, thought I had been unfair.

In 1958, Roybal, who is now a congressman, was a militantly liberal Los Angeles city councilman who criticized the downtown business establishment, and The Times, for promoting projects that wiped out poor Hispanic neighborhoods. Dodger Stadium, built in Chavez Ravine, and the Bunker Hill redevelopment project were two of them. Debs was a pro-development Los Angeles city councilman who exemplified the grow-grow-grow L.A. of the '50s.

After the election, Debs and his four supervisorial colleagues began a series of boundary changes that radically altered the 3rd District and swung it in his favor.

An explanatory note: After each census, supervisors, like other elected representatives, change the boundaries of their districts so that each district represents about the same number of voters. Each supervisor gets a district with enough potentially friendly voters to assure victory. This is called gerrymandering and it is customarily done in private, despite public disclosure laws.

Debs and his colleagues first moved the western boundary of the 3rd District to include Westwood, Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. Previously, those neighborhoods had been in the 4th District, which runs along the coast. The next change moved the northwestern boundary all the way over the Santa Monica Mountains into Sherman Oaks, Studio City and other San Fernando Valley communities. Those sectors also has been in other districts.

With each move, Debs' district became more Anglo, reducing the proportion of Latinos who had backed Roybal. The 3rd District, which almost elected a Latino in 1958, had become a constituency where Latinos had dwindled.

Another important supervisorial decision involved the fast-growing Latino population in the San Gabriel Valley. These voters could gone to the 3rd District, which would have strengthened its Latino population. But they went to the neighboring 1st District.

Thus was the Latino population divided.

Those lines were generally followed in the supervisors' 1981 redistricting, the specific target of the Justice Department's lawsuit.

In the trial, neither side has has called Debs to testify. But government witnesses claim that his motive, and that of the other supervisors, was to dilute the Latino vote. In our phone conversation, Debs told me that's not true. The board, he said, merely reacted to population shifts.

The rich political drama driving the case has been mummified, buried under highly technical testimony and boxes of fine-printed documents. This reached its height last week when a political science professor, vainly trying to bring precision to the imprecise business of politics, actually added up voter registration figures on his hand calculator.

But no calculator can measure Ernie Debs' motives. Only Judge Kenyon, viewing it all from the bench, can do that.

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