Ernest E. Debs, 98; County Supervisor for 16 Years
Ernest E. Debs, a stubborn, resilient man whose 32-year political career was marked by tempests over allegiance to special interests but also by major contributions to culture, recreation and social services in Los Angeles County, has died at 98.
Debs served for 16 years on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors--from 1958 through 1974--at a time when every supervisor was all-powerful in his own district and the board was known as “the five little kings of the county.”
“I’ve outlived all my friends and most of my enemies,” Debs told his family before dying of natural causes Sunday at his retirement home in Indian Wells.
Debs’ tenure in politics also included stints in the state Assembly and on the Los Angeles City Council.
At the time he retired from the Board of Supervisors, Debs’ 3rd Supervisorial District swept in a great arc from Westwood and portions of the San Fernando Valley and central Los Angeles to such Eastside communities as Monterey Park and Montebello. The district had a population of 1.4 million people, more populous than 16 states at the time.
Among Debs’ proudest achievements was his co-authorship of bills that created Cal State Los Angeles and UCLA Medical Center.
He also was a vigorous champion of public parks. Along with the late Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and City Councilwoman Roz Wyman, he gave pivotal support to the effort to bring the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958.
But it was his exercise of raw political power over such matters as zoning, building permits and the like that many of his colleagues remembered Monday.
“He was tenacious,” said Wyman, his former colleague on the City Council. “He never missed a trick in the sense of how to maneuver something through. He was a politician’s politician.”
Said Ed Edelman, who succeeded Debs as supervisor after initiating a campaign on the theme that Debs was a creature of special business interests: “Ernie was one of the most colorful politicians we’ve seen in Los Angeles.... He wasn’t going to change.... He was an old-style, old-time politician who delivered.”
Debs was born in Toledo, Ohio, on Feb. 7, 1904, and came to California in a box car when he was 20 to work in the movies as a dance man. He appeared in silent movies and talkies. He had no college education, and prided himself on being a self-made man.
He gave up show business to work among the politicians as a sergeant at arms in the state Assembly before embarking on a political career of his own.
In 1942, he won his election as a conservative Democrat to the state Assembly from Silver Lake. In 1947, he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council from a largely Eastside district, serving for 11 years.
A decade later, he ran for the Board of Supervisors, beating Edward R. Roybal, a seminal figure in Latino politics, after four recounts in a bitterly contested election. He succeeded John Anson Ford.
The Debs style was on display in 1966 when Jack Kent Cooke applied for a long-term lease for the Lakers to play at the Sports Arena and also asked for a lease to play hockey there. Debs, as a supervisor, sat on the Coliseum Commission.
Both applications were summarily rejected. When Cooke remonstrated personally with Debs, the supervisor replied bluntly, “Take it or leave it.”
“My reply,” Cooke recalled later, “was, ‘I may decide to build my own arena.’”
“To this, Debs said, ‘Har, har, har.’ He wasn’t laughing. He just said, ‘Har, har, har.’”
On this occasion, the petitioner ended up prevailing. Cooke went on to build the Forum in Inglewood.
Debs was an indefatigable attender of public events, often showing up at as many as five gatherings a night.
“He showed up everywhere and we rode in every parade for every ethnicity,” said his daughter, Candi Debs. “He was very proud of the range of cultures in his district.”
The current supervisor from Debs’ district, Zev Yaroslavsky, recalled Monday, “When I was growing up in Boyle Heights, as well as later in the Fairfax area, he was my supervisor. There were two political names I was aware of: Jimmy Roosevelt and Ernie Debs.
“I remember a tree-planting ceremony for the Jewish National Fund in Griffith Park. I was 8 years old. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was when [Debs] arrived, but he certainly seemed important.”
Redistricting moved Debs farther and farther west, to areas away from the power base of his former opponent, Roybal, and he displayed great allegiance to his newer Jewish constituents, as well as the silk-stocking area of Hancock Park.
“He attended almost every Jewish event in town when he was well,” said Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin. “He went to Israel to plant trees and when we broke ground for the Stephen Wise Temple in Bel Air in 1964, he was instrumental in getting all the permitting through for us.”
Debs easily won reelection to the board in the primaries of 1962, 1966 and 1970 by supporting cultural projects such as the Music Center, bilingual education, scholarships and improved parks and schools.
He created what later was named the 282-acre Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Montecito Heights.
“I represent the richest of the rich, the poorest of the poor, and every nationality known to man in sizable numbers,” he said proudly.
Debs prided himself on his championship of opportunities for the elderly, helping to create many senior citizen centers.
“What inflation has done to our elderly is horrible,” he said. “I wonder how they keep body and soul together on the meager allowances we allow them.... A nation as rich as ours should be ashamed with the way we treat our elderly.”
As time went on, however, criticism grew of what some saw as Debs’ high-handedness.
In one of the major controversies marking his last years in office, the late mayor of Beverly Hills, Jake Stuchen, publicly questioned how much Debs would want to be paid to stop the building of a high-rise tower on the West Hollywood-Beverly Hills city line that would cast a shadow on some Beverly Hills homes.
Debs was furious, insisting that payments had nothing to do with his support of the proposed high-rise.
Television newscaster Baxter Ward, when he was elected as a supervisor in 1972, began ragging Debs unmercifully on a variety of issues, including Debs’ endorsement of the probation application of former singer Phil Regan, who had been convicted of bribery.
Ward demanded that Debs resign from his oversight chairmanships of three county departments--probation, grand jury and district attorney.
Ward also questioned Debs’ support of moving the West Hollywood sheriff’s station in a way that might have benefited Southern Pacific Railroad. Debs finally withdrew the proposal.
“In my 30 years of public life, I have never served with a man like this,” Debs complained in 1973. “For the last six years, I would not allow him to tape me because of his distortions and taking statements out of context.”
Debs assiduously defended himself, even when criticized. A call from a critical reporter was put through in five minutes--to Yellowknife in the Canadian Northwest Territory, where Debs had gone on a trip sponsored by water and power interests.
But time was catching up with Debs. After a poll showed Edelman mounting a powerful challenge for reelection, Debs abruptly pulled out of the 1974 race. He withdrew, he said, not because he couldn’t win, but because his doctors demanded it for the sake of his health.
He was 70 at the time. “I want to live,” he explained.
Angry at Edelman for painting him as a tool of special interests, Debs, a longtime member of the Sons of Italy, endorsed Los Angeles Councilman John Ferraro, but Ferraro lost the election.
Controversy still dogged Debs after it was divulged that he had successfully sought workers’ compensation for his heart condition and might be planning to use $100,000 in campaign contributions for personal expenses without paying taxes on it.
In a rare public statement, an Internal Revenue Service auditor wanted to know whether Debs would be using any of the money for personal purposes. Debs maintained that the donations “were a gift to me, personally” and it was none of the tax authorities’ business.
Debs lived another 28 years, mainly in the Coachella Valley, and maintained a lively interest in government.
In June, at age 97, he appeared downtown to speak at a ceremony to reopen the retrofitted City Hall. He kept in touch even with political adversaries.
“He used to call me,” Edelman said. “He needed to feel he was part of things.”
In addition to his daughter, Debs is survived by his wife of 34 years, Betty, and a son, David.
A public memorial is pending, his family said.
They suggested that charitable contributions in Debs’ memory be made to St. Jude’s Hospital, Shriners Hospital or the Ernest E. Debs Regional Park/National Audubon Society Urban Preserve.