A Quiet Groundbreaker

Edward R. Roybal, noted Latino politician, dies at 89

By George Ramos
Published on LatinoLA: October 26, 2005

A Quiet Groundbreaker

Edward R. Roybal, a pioneer in Latino politics in Los Angeles and a godfather and mentor to scores of lawmakers, died Monday of pneumonia, according to the district office of his daughter, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles). He was 89.

Roybal, who championed the rights of the underprivileged and the aged during 30 years in Congress, began his political career in 1949 on the Los Angeles City Council as the first person of Mexican descent to sit on the council since 1881; it would take another 23 years before another Mexican American took a seat on the City Council.

"The congressman was a true barrier breaker and a political legend, particularly in the Mexican American community," Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who considered Roybal a mentor, said in a statement today. "Throughout his tenure, he remained committed to Latinos, the elderly, the poor, and the physically challenged."

"A champion for civil rights and social justice like him does not come around every day," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement. "He wanted nothing less than what all Americans strive for - a good job, safe neighborhoods, quality schools and a place to call home."

In 1993, Roybal told a Times interviewer that at his first City Council meeting, he was introduced as "our new Mexican councilman who also speaks Mexican."

"I discarded my prepared speech," Roybal said. "My mission was immediately obvious. I'm not Mexican. I am a Mexican American. And I don't speak a word of Mexican. I speak Spanish."

It became his role, he said, to educate his fellow public officials about Latinos and pay special attention to what he felt were the long-neglected needs of his largely Latino constituencies.

One way he did this was to harshly criticize the Los Angeles Police Department for its treatment of minorities, and he had own his story to underscore his contention.

On his first date with his future wife, Lucille, in the early 1940s, a white officer came up behind the teenage couple - they were sharing chili beans and crackers at a stand at 4th and Soto streets in Boyle Heights - and went through Roybal's pockets. The officer then dumped the couple's dinner on the sidewalk, the former congressman told a Times reporter.

"That kind of stuff was happening all the time," Roybal said.

Roybal also was an outspoken opponent of the city land swap that gave the Los Angeles Dodgers prime real estate for a new ballpark in Chavez Ravine, which was largely populated by Mexican Americans, in exchange for Wrigley Field, a minor league baseball stadium at 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard.

Roybal-Allard later recalled that her father received many angry calls at home from supporters of the deal.

"One man said my father was un-American because he was against baseball and the Dodgers," said Roybal-Allard, now a Democratic member of Congress representing East Los Angeles. "I was a young girl at the time and I tried to convince the man that my dad was right. I wasn't able to."

Roybal, the first Latino politician from the Eastside to gain wide recognition, was considered an up-and-coming Democrat. Although he lost a bid in 1954 to become California's lieutenant governor, four years later he came close to defeating Ernest Debs for a seat on the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Roybal initially held a 390-vote lead on election night and, when a 12,000-vote error was discovered, there were four recounts. Roybal eventually lost to Debs amid suspicions that the election was taken from him simply because he was Mexican American.

In 1962, he successfully ran for Congress in the 25th District, which stretched from Hollywood through the downtown area to East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. In Congress, he championed the rights of illegal immigrants, including opposing the landmark 1986 amnesty law, which led to the legalization of more than a 1.5 million Latinos. He instead favored a more generous plan that would have legalized more Latinos.

He also was instrumental in getting Congress to approve funds to provide medical, welfare and educational services to eligible immigrants.

Harry Pachon, who was Roybal's chief of staff in Washington D.C. from 1977 to 1981, said his former boss didn't worry about the consequences of his votes.

"He voted his conscience, even when people made fun of him," Pachon said.

Never a headline grabber, Roybal used his position as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in the 1960s and `70s to secure congressional funding for key programs. In 1967, he introduced and won approval for the first federal bilingual education law, which established English classes for migrant children and others. The law began to change the practice in California and elsewhere of funneling non-English speakers into remedial classes.

Roybal worked tirelessly on behalf of seniors in the 1980s as chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging. In 1980, he persuaded Congress to restore $15 million it had cut from senior citizens' programs in order to continue low-cost health services. He also argued that the younger minority-dominated work force, including Latinos, needed to be supported by Congress - especially if it was expected to pay for the public benefits and programs for an increasingly aging population.

"If we don't invest in the Hispanic population today, we will pay the consequences tomorrow," Roybal said in an 1987 interview.

His devotion to seniors was recognized after he retired from Congress when the Edward R. Roybal Institute for Applied Gerontology was established at Cal State Los Angeles. The program is designed to educate physicians, nurses and community members about how best to deliver health services to the aged.

He also supported AIDS research. In 1983, when the Reagan administration said $17.6 million was enough to finance the war on AIDS, Roybal helped obtain another $8 million for the next year. Two years later, Roybal proposed an increase of funding to $176 million, which was eventually approved by Congress.

This did not sit well with some of his Eastside constituents.

"We would get calls from people who would say, 'What are you doing? There are no gays in East L.A.' But he didn't care. It was a health issue to him," recalled Henry Lozano, another of Roybal's former chiefs of staff. "He was ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting AIDS."

"He was a quiet groundbreaker," agreed Pachon, who is now president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank at Claremont Graduate University. "Many of his accomplishments go unrecognized because he did things in a quiet way."

Knowing from his experience that it wasn't easy for a Latino to win election in Southern California - his own departure to Congress in 1962 created a void in representation on the City Council that wouldn't be filled for more than two decades, when then-Democratic Assemblyman Richard Alatorre was elected to Roybal's old seat in 1985 - Roybal extended a helping hand and advice to many Latino politicians. Aspiring officeholders sought an endorsement from "the Old Man," knowing that a nod from Roybal could be a decisive factor, especially with Latinos.

Among those who got a helping hand from Roybal in launching their political careers were Molina, now chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors; Alatorre; state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, and Roybal's daughter.

He "paved the way for the next generation, just like we're paving the way for the generation after us," Roybal-Allard, who represents parts of her father's old district, told The Times in 1999. "But he was really the pioneer."

In the 1970s, Roybal founded the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a nationwide research and civic action group for Latino lawmakers across the U.S. NALEO now has more than 6,000 members. He also co-founded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, serving as its first chairman.

Roybal has more buildings named after him than almost any other Los Angeles politician, including a comprehensive health center in East L.A. and a federal building and courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named its main campus in Atlanta after Roybal.

Roybal was born Feb. 10, 1916, in Albuquerque, N.M., one of 10 children of Baudilio Sr., a carpenter, and Eloisa Roybal. When he was a child, the family moved to Boyle Heights, where he attended public schools and graduated from Roosevelt High School.

During the Depression, Roybal was one of thousands of young men who joined the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps. He studied accounting at UCLA and Southwestern University, then joined an accounting firm, which sent him to a food-processing plant in Vernon to help with the company's books. He later became a public health educator with the California Tuberculosis Assn. and, after serving in the Army during World War II as an accountant for an infantry unit, became one of the directors of health education for the L.A. County Tuberculosis and Health Assn.

His work in the field prompted many friends on the Eastside to urge Roybal to run for a seat on the L.A. City Council, which he did in 1947, but he was defeated. Two years later, he won the seat by campaigning for more streetlights, better housing and increased restraints on police.

Roybal attributed his victory to following the principles of Chicago activist Saul Alinsky, who preached that coalitions between similarly affected groups should be forged for the common good. The coalition Roybal forged was between Mexican Americans and Jews, who both sought greater equity and an end to racism.

It made sense for Roybal to reach out to Jews because they were an integral part of life in Boyle Heights in the years before and immediately after World War II. He followed up this election strategy by helping to establish, with Eastside activist Anthony P. Rios, the Community Service Organization, which was a partnership between Jews and Latinos on the Eastside that conducted voter registration and get-out-the-vote programs on Roybal's behalf.

As a congressman, Roybal frequently clashed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service over what he said was its uneven enforcement of the country's immigration laws. He once gave a sharp tongue-lashing to the normally glib Harold Ezell, then the INS' regional commissioner for the West. Ezell said nothing during Roybal's tirade, according to Lozano.

On another occasion, enraged over INS tactics in the 1980s, Roybal fumed: "Next to the IRS, the INS is the most discourteous arm of the federal government."

In 1978, Roybal was reprimanded by his colleagues in the House of Representatives after he admitted he had lied about a $1,000 gift he received from South Korean lobbyist Tongsun Park. The incident made no difference to his constituents, who returned him to Congress that year with 70% of the vote. Senior citizens were particularly forgiving, especially after Roybal explained that the $1,000 contribution - which he claimed at the time came from an unknown donor - had been used to buy tables for the elderly at a 1974 Roybal fundraiser.

The congressman kept his hands in local politics, advising and endorsing a number of Latinos who sought elective office. When Molina, then a newcomer, sought to succeed her boss, Torres, in the state Assembly in 1982, Roybal ignored the wishes of Alatorre, an Eastside powerhouse in his own right, who supported his own candidate for the seat. Molina won and afterward counted on the Old Man as a key ally.

In 1991, Molina, with Roybal's endorsement, won election to the county Board of Supervisors. With unmistakable joy, Roybal attended Molina's swearing-in ceremony as she became the first Mexican American to sit on that body. Friends said later that Roybal relished the moment of Molina's swearing-in because of his own controversial loss to Debs.

Roybal retired from the House in early 1992. Xavier Becerra, with Roybal's endorsement, won election in the newly constituted 30th District, which included half of Roybal's old 25th District.

Roybal missed a chance to serve in Congress alongside his daughter, who was elected to the House in November 1992.

After he left Congress, Roybal continued his involvement with issues affecting the elderly and with politics, endorsing several local candidates. Among those who won elections with his endorsement was Nick Pacheco, who in 1999 was elected to Alatorre's seat on the L.A. City Council.

Besides Roybal-Allard, Roybal is survived by his wife, Lucille Beserra-Roybal; daughter Lillian Roybal-Rose; son Edward Jr.; and several grandchildren.

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Originally published in the LA Times

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