Ramona Ripston has never been one to back away from a fight.
As the driving force behind the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California for 38 years, she’s battled police over the treatment of prisoners and the homeless. She’s marched against segregation and sued for better inner-city schools. She’s taken authorities to court for withholding public housing and medical care from those she believes need them most.
But with the recession taking a deep bite out of government budgets and philanthropy, Ripston has wearied of the setbacks dealt the causes she holds dear. On Tuesday, she will announce her plans to retire next year and hand off the unfinished battles to a younger successor.
“I’m very tired,” the once-indefatigable liberal icon conceded in an interview, the floral bouquets from her recent 83rd birthday beginning to droop as well.
“I was very affected by the layoffs,” Ripston said of the five staffers let go last year from among the 60 she had hired as executive director. “I’ve fired people for not doing a satisfactory job, but when you’re laying off people for money reasons -- it just took a lot out of me.”
Ripston said she had also been moved to step down in hopes of rejuvenating the graying landscape of liberal activism in Los Angeles, a force now driven by those who honed their social consciousness in the 1960s. The ACLU needs to attract more young talent, she said, to infuse its causes with new ideas and vigor.
Although she counts as her legacy key victories in cases alleging police abuse and getting federal court injunctions against enforcing Proposition 187, which would have denied public benefits to “suspected” illegal immigrants, Ripston laments what she sees as a recent trend of “going backwards.”
California public schools were the envy of the nation when Ripston arrived in 1972, she said. “Now we’re somewhere in the 40s,” she said of the state’s ranking.
President Obama’s campaign promise to provide affordable healthcare for all citizens is one of a number of dashed expectations, she said.
“While I personally was a big Obama supporter, I have to say I’ve been disappointed,” Ripston said. “I think he could have pushed harder on his health plan.”
The ACLU of Southern California will launch a nationwide search for Ripston’s successor, said Gordon Smith, communications director. Ripston will stay on as executive director until Feb. 15, 2011, he said, and remain involved with the organization in a part-time emeritus role.
Not everyone is likely to mourn her departure. Ripston famously sparred with police and prosecutors over jail conditions and alleged police brutality and corruption, and she was a founding member of Death Penalty Focus, a group dedicated to abolishing capital punishment despite majority support for it in the state and nation.
Former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates used to call her “Ramona Ripoff.”
“We hope that the individual who replaces her comes to the table with no preconceived notions that when the Los Angeles Police Department is involved in an issue, that they’re doing the wrong thing,” said Paul Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing the LAPD’s 9,300 officers. “Even though the league is across the street from the ACLU, I don’t think we could be farther apart on most issues.”
Ripston plans to remain active in fundraising for the organization that grew from six to 60 staff members during her tenure, with an annual budget that now runs $6.5 million. She will also continue serving with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commission, becoming its chairwoman in June.
If the transition to retirement goes well, she said, her husband of 20 years, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, may eventually take the semi-retirement senior status offered by the court and join her in a reduced workload.
Friends have long teased Ripston about the cost of her marriage to the group’s progressive causes when they reach the 9th Circuit. Reinhardt, one of the appeals court’s most liberal members, recuses himself from cases in which the ACLU is involved.
“They always ask me,” she said, “why I couldn’t have married one of the conservatives and taken that vote away.”