Passing her civil rights torch
Before a crowd of 800 in a Beverly Wilshire Hotel ballroom, a series of prominent figures from politics, entertainment and law are taking the podium to praise the career of Ramona Ripston, Los Angeles’ tough-talking doyenne of civil liberties.
Ripston is about to retire after nearly 40 years as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, so she is subject to a little ribbing. One speaker tells how Ripston recovered from a stressful meeting by power-shopping through Saks Fifth Avenue. Another quips that this svelte 83-year-old grandmother “draws the line at freedom of the press” whenever newspapers print her age.
But for the most part on this warm winter night, accolades flow.
She has moxie, says Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. She’s a master of community organizing, says the Rev. James Lawson. She’s a skillful political broker, says civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who adds that it took her years to figure out that Ripston, despite her impressive grasp of the legal system, is not a lawyer.
Once upon a time, Ripston was a frustrated New York housewife with do-good instincts. In California, she transformed herself into a formidable force as head of one of the ACLU’s largest and, some would say, most liberal affiliates. She stood up to angry San Fernando Valley parents opposed to school integration, assailed the Los Angeles Police Department for brutality and hounded an abrasive police chief -- Daryl Gates -- until he resigned.
She has not always been politically correct -- feminists, for instance, stormed out of an ACLU board meeting when she supported an off-duty San Bernardino fireman’s right to read Playboy at the station house -- but she has always been a political creature who leaned resolutely left.
“Ramona Ripston,” television producer Norman Lear declares, “may be my favorite lefty!”
On this occasion -- the ACLU’s annual Bill of Rights fundraising gala -- Lear makes mention of the sad state of liberal America, which has been reeling from political assaults. “No one calls himself a liberal anymore. Everyone is a progressive,” complains the man who created TV’s archetypal knee-jerk conservative, Archie Bunker. With Democrats beleaguered by the “tea party” onslaught, the retirement of Ripston, who is as much an icon of liberal Los Angeles as Lear, carries special poignancy for many in the room.
So when she walks on stage to a standing ovation, it’s a bittersweet moment. “It’s not easy to retire,” she says in a husky voice. “Leaving my job -- my lifetime job -- makes me very sad.”
What depresses her about retiring on Tuesday is not just fear of inactivity or the ego-deflation of no longer being in charge. What weighs on her most is how much of her progressive agenda remains unfinished.
So much seemed possible when she came to California 39 years ago: She was excited about enrolling her children in its top-rated public schools and living in a state where citizens have the power of the initiative. But school quality has declined. And the ballot initiative has been used to reverse victories --against the death penalty, for school busing, affirmative action and gay marriage -- that she fought so hard to win. Now she’s leaving center stage at a precarious moment for the American left. She’s finding it hard to brush off the regrets.
“As you come to the end of a career,” she said recently, “you wonder: Did I make a difference? Did I shortchange my kids because I worked so hard? Did I really make a difference?”
In her office on the outskirts of downtown, the sun streaming through the windows warms the brick walls and blond wood furnishings. Taped to her door is a sign that reads “I can only please one person a day. Today is not your day.” On the other side of the door, Edgar the pug, who belongs to her assistant, is barking. Ripston runs a dog-friendly office, in part because she believes pets “bring the tension down here.”
She has just returned from New Haven, Conn., where she spoke to young women at Yale about one of her chief passions, fighting for economic rights. This morning she admits to feeling tired, emerging from a budget meeting with a plate of cookies and a fiscal picture that, though not exactly cheery, isn’t as grim as it was the previous year.
There will be no raises but at least she won’t have to lay off anyone, an improvement over 2009, when she let three employees go. She broke down and cried with one of the pink-slipped staffers.
“It’s very hard for her to gird up to be tough,” says her husband, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt. “She really is very soft in a lot of ways.”
Soft was not the word anyone would have used to describe her in the spring of 1991, when the police beating of motorist Rodney King was topping every news broadcast. On a March afternoon barely two weeks after the beating, she pushed her way into a packed auditorium where the Police Commission was meeting. Following close behind her were several assistants carrying large boxes.
They dumped the boxes on the table where Gates, the embattled police chief, was sitting. The room came to a standstill. Then Ripston, whom Gates often called “Ramona the Ripper,” announced the contents: 10,000 petitions demanding his removal.
It was a classic Ripston moment.
“She was one of the catalysts of the outrage people felt,” says civil rights attorney R. Samuel Paz, who is among those who give Ripston a good share of credit for Gates’ resignation in 1992 and the police reforms that followed. “She was one of the catalysts,” he adds, “for the change in police leadership.”
Fast forward to 2006, and Ripston is in an opposing stance again, this time facing 200 downtown merchants and residents incensed over the ACLU’s defense of homeless encampments on skid row.
“Would you allow and tolerate a homeless individual living on the street in front of your home who is probably peeing and pooing and probably shooting up?” Carol Schatz, executive director of the Central City Assn., pointedly asks Ripston. Schatz calls the ACLU leader a well-intentioned hypocrite for “forcing down the throat of the downtown community” conditions that would be unacceptable in any neighborhood, including Marina del Rey, where Ripston lives.
Stands like these made Ripston an object of conservative wrath. Radio host Rush Limbaugh, for example, once pilloried Ripston and her husband as “left-leaning commie socialists.” Seventy-nine-year-old Reinhardt, known for arguing such positions as the unconstitutionality of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, is considered one of the most liberal judges in the federal judiciary.
He recuses himself from cases involving the Southern California ACLU. Their marriage gives friends ample opportunity to tease: Why couldn’t Ripston have married a conservative judge and taken that vote away?
Most recently, their union was an issue when gay marriage opponents raised Ripston’s association with same-sex marriage proponents as grounds for Reinhardt’s removal from the 9th Circuit panel considering the legality of Proposition 8. He contends that he can judge the case impartially and has refused to step aside.
“Anybody who knows my husband knows how hard it is to influence him on anything,” Ripston says. They frequently argue about politics, current events and other issues, she notes without elaboration, but “we try to avoid conversation on issues that will find their way into court.”
Their marriage -- his second and her fifth -- has lasted 20 years, in large part, she says, because they respect each other. Their longest-running argument may be about his refusal to learn how to make coffee. He won’t make the bed either. And they don’t have dinner together enough, by her accounting, because he keeps even longer hours than she does: She often works until 8 p.m. but he rarely leaves his downtown office before 10.
“Our personality traits are totally the opposite,” Reinhardt says one day in his wood-paneled office. “She’s very neat and I’m much more relaxed about things. She thinks garbage has got to go out twice a day. I couldn’t care less if it stacked up for a week.... She’s given up on changing me.”
He also describes himself as more of a pragmatist. “I mean, look at the Supreme Court -- not much I can do about it,” he says of its conservative slant. “Ramona would be so affected if she had something above her that she couldn’t do anything about.... She’s not willing to accept that. She gets really upset by injustice. It’s probably what’s kept her going in this kind of job so long.”
Ripston says there was no magical epiphany that led her to become a crusader for social justice.
The native of Queens, N.Y., graduated from Hunter College in 1948 with a degree in political science, but the only job she could find was modeling; later, she was a buyer for Saks. Then, in the 1950s, she did what was expected of women: She married and started a family.
She was unhappy as a housewife, however, and began volunteering at the New York Civil Liberties Union. When she was offered a job there in the mid-1960s, her then-husband -- a successful lingerie manufacturer -- scoffed. The marriage ended.
From the start she demonstrated a knack for explaining controversial positions. “She was a public relations genius,” says Ira Glasser, who often clashed with Ripston during his two decades as national executive director. “I don’t think she was the biggest intellectual in the organization, but she had enormous flair for making issues visible and understandable to the general public.”
An attractive and opinionated mother of three, she turned heads when she arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Society’s views of women were changing: “Ms.” had entered the vocabulary and TV audiences were drawn to Mary Tyler Moore’s portrayal of a career woman finding her way in a man’s world. But when an all-male search committee interviewed Ripston, its first question seemed behind the times: How was she going to give the ACLU the time it needed and still take care of her children?
Ripston took a deep breath. “Look,” she answered, “I have a job at the New York Urban Coalition, making more than I think you’re offering me here. I manage there and I can manage here.” The vote wasn’t unanimous, but she got the job.
Over the years, she struggled with working-mother guilt, particularly over her youngest child, a learning-disabled son who died in his 30s after a period of alcoholism. But the public Ripston was unshakeable.
“What I remember is she was so beautiful and so smart and strong.... I wanted to be like her,” recalls Sheila McCoy, a retired Cal Poly Pomona historian and one of the few women on the ACLU board then. “I felt she was kind of ideal.”
What drew Ripston to the Southern California ACLU was its propensity for taking up causes that were partisan or veered from the traditional emphasis on freedom of expression and church-state issues. “We were a peculiar ACLU ... because we took positions,” says former president Marvin Schacter. He remembers how the affiliate broke from the national ACLU to join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his first civil rights march in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. National policy allowed chapters to be only neutral observers.
Ripston was comfortable as an activist and over the decades has championed issues that can rankle other civil libertarians.
“We now work on homelessness,” she says. “I feel very strongly that poverty is a civil liberties issue.” When Villaraigosa appointed her to a joint city-county homeless services board, it riled some city officials and the downtown business community, where the ACLU’s lawsuits against police sweeps on skid row were highly unpopular.
“One of the things that Ramona has done at the ACLU is broaden the conception of what is civil liberties,” says UC Irvine law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky. “It still does free speech and separation of church and state. But she made policing an important part of civil liberties, along with education and poverty.”
At the same time, Chemerinsky acknowledged that liberal values have sometimes overtaken the civil liberties mission. “I wish the ACLU was perceived as a special-interest group whose interest is the Constitution,” he says. “I worry it is perceived as just another liberal special-interest group.”
Ripston admires Chemerinsky but rejects the criticism, arguing that the work in education and economic rights has not come at the expense of the core mission. What does concern her is the average age of ACLU members, 55. “There is a moment when young leadership needs to step up,” she says, explaining her retirement to a mostly gray-haired gathering of the ACLU’s Pasadena chapter one Sunday. Several weeks later, the board announced that the group’s 42-year-old legal director, Hector Villagra, would succeed her.
For an octogenarian, Ripston is undeniably youthful, still wearing her blond hair long and taking the stairs in spike heels.
When she announced plans to step down last year, board members and staffers were shocked. “She’s shown no sign of slowing down, no sign of lack of interest in the issues,” says deputy executive director James Gilliam.
She intends to stay involved, but some wonder whether anyone else can juggle the complexities of the job as ably as she has.
“What is remarkable is that Ramona has the ability to move between and amongst so many worlds,” says national ACLU director Anthony Romero. “She will hobnob with celebrities and socialites and twist the arms of police chiefs. She will walk in Manolo Blahnik shoes and then stand in protest in a pair of sneakers for hours.
“Very few people have the skills to navigate those reefs the way Ramona has.”
When she looks back, she tries to sound positive, ticking off a list of impressive wins. There are the lawsuits that created a supervisorial district for Los Angeles County’s first Latina supervisor, forced the state to spend millions to upgrade substandard public schools and disbanded a controversial LAPD spying unit. In the post-Gates era, she guided the ACLU to a substantial role in monitoring the LAPD’s compliance with a federal consent decree. After decades of acrimony with the department, she has a good relationship with Chief Charlie Beck, who calls her “a voice of the informed left” and means it as a compliment.
She also remembers the smaller victories. One day early on, a blind woman with a companion dog was waiting in the lobby.
Ripston asked if she could pet the animal and the woman began to cry, explaining that her landlord was going to raise her rent because of it. Recognizing a clear-cut case of discrimination against a disabled person, Ripston called the landlord. “I said, ‘I’m the head of the ACLU and if you raise this person’s rent we are going to sue you unless you rescind the rent increase.’ He did.”
She smiles at the memory; the ACLU was a simpler operation then. Today it fields 10,000 calls a year on a gamut of issues, from church-state conflicts to immigrant rights. A person with a complaint can’t just walk in and see the director.
“A lot of the original thrill is gone,” Ripston says a bit wearily.
It’s late on a Friday afternoon and, although she has a speech to write, she pushes back her desk chair and strolls down the hall. She stops at the much smaller space she will occupy as director emeritus.
Is she sad? Yes. Does she hate to give up her position when there’s still so much to be done? Of course. “In many ways, it is very sad to be ending my career at this moment, when things look, I think, rather bleak in terms of what we can win,” she says. “It’s certainly better if I take the long view.”
Retirement may not come easily, but the view -- at least from Ripston’s new office -- isn’t bad. From a certain angle she can see a mural on a nearby building that shows Lady Liberty in the classic pose. The colors are a bit faded, but not ruinously so.
Ripston takes in the sight with a quick glance, turns and walks away.