The frail-looking white-haired woman on the Compton City Council has sat placidly, mostly silent, for nearly two decades. She rarely debated or even commented on the business before the council. Instead, when she did speak, it was mostly to tell a historical anecdote. Sometimes, she would recite a poem.
For 18 years, Jane D. Robbins declined to campaign for reelection, so certain was she of the voters’ affection--even though, toward the end, she was the lone white council member in a city where the white population had diminished to 1.5%.
This year, for the first time, the 75-year-old councilwoman did make the effort to hold on to her seat, distributing flyers and meeting voters face to face. Even then, she was more likely to be found on the campaign trail sharing a recipe than a thought on policy.
This year, she lost.
On Saturday, Robbins officially stepped down from her seat. While few people would praise her leadership skills, she had her admirers--sometimes in unexpected quarters--who see an era passing from city government.
“Miss Robbins never ever said a mean thing about anyone. She was never vindictive, even when she was attacked,” said Omar Bradley, the city’s often controversial mayor. “I would like to be more like that.”
In Robbins’ lifetime in Compton, the city changed. Once largely white, it now is 54% black, 44% Latino. The working-class city has witnessed a sharp rise in crime and a wrenching political scandal involving the indictment of two former council members accused of soliciting bribes.
Even so, Robbins expressed surprise that her unchanging style no longer was enough to keep her in office.
“I have such a long history with the people of Compton,” she said soon after the ballots were tallied.
During Robbins’ years on the council, “history” has been her operative word.
Robbins considered herself the memory of the ruling body. She rarely passed up an opportunity to remind others that her father, Charles Dickison, was the city’s first mayor in 1924.
Born in a small house on the city’s east side, Robbins has lived for the past 50 years in a house one block from where she was born. Like her father, she was a teacher in Compton’s elementary schools. When she left the profession in 1976 to join the council, she was principal of the school named for her father, Dickison Elementary.
Robbins married Compton Police Officer Robert Robbins in 1945, three days after she met him on a blind date. (He died of cancer in 1993.) They had two daughters, one of whom lives next door to her mother.
In Robbins’ lifetime, she witnessed a major earthquake that flattened most of Compton’s buildings, a post-World War II building boom, white flight from the city, two riots and a recent demographic shift toward Latinos.
Yet, ask how the city has altered and she will say that it hasn’t really changed at all. When interviewed over the years about issues such as crime, racial tension or poverty, Robbins would change the subject or say the issue is irrelevant and overblown in the media.
Politically, Robbins was an enigma, said former colleagues. Over the course of five elections, she refused to debate, appear at community forums or create campaign brochures. She said debates only created “arguments and bad feelings” and voters knew who she was, anyway.
Yet she won those elections--albeit by the narrowest margins in city history.
“She’s a nice lady, but she hasn’t been very active,” said Fred Cressel, 57, a restaurateur who beat Robbins in the June 6 council election and took her seat Saturday. “She’s just sitting there.”
Throughout this campaign, the content of Robbins’ few speeches usually ran toward poetry or recipes--a habit, she said, that was learned at her father’s political knee.
In a speech for one cable television forum, Robbins listed several ethnic dishes--turnip greens, black-eyed peas, burritos, tacos, chop suey--and concluded, “that is what Compton is made of.”