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Passing her civil rights torch

After nearly 40 years, Ramona Ripston will retire as executive director of Southern California's ACLU.

February 13, 2011|Elaine Woo

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.

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Tough fights

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."

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'The Ripper'

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