In his 30 industrious years on Capitol Hill, Edward R. Roybal rose to power by shaping legislation on behalf of the underprivileged. Serving the sick and the elderly, nonprofits, and non-native English speakers, Roybal never seemed to waver from the progressive course he first set as a member of the Los Angeles city council. A cofounder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and its first chairman, Roybal was among the country’s most influential Hispanic politicians. Later, as chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, he underwrote many of the most important federal programs, making him one of the most influential Members of the House. “If we don’t invest in the Hispanic population today,” he cautioned in 1987, “we will pay the consequences tomorrow.”1
Edward Ross Roybal was one of 10 children born to Baudilio Roybal, a carpenter, and Eloisa (Tafoya) Roybal on February 10, 1916, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.2 Like many families in the Southwest, Roybal’s family had lived in the region for eight generations, since it was controlled by the Spanish. When he was six, Edward and his family moved to Los Angeles, California, settling on the east side in the barrios near Boyle Heights. He attended the local public schools and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1934. For much of the next year, he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps before studying accounting and business administration at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Southwestern University, also in the city. From 1942 until 1944 he worked as a public-health educator with the California Tuberculosis Association, and he later served four years as director of health education for the Los Angeles County Tuberculosis and Health Association.3 Late in the Second World War, Roybal served as an accountant for an infantry unit in the U.S. Army. He married the former Lucille Beserra on September 27, 1940, and the couple raised three children: Lucille; Lillian; and Edward, Jr.
Like many veterans, particularly Latino veterans, Roybal was motivated by his wartime experience to challenge discrimination in Southern California, especially its effects on economic, education, and housing conditions around Los Angeles.4 After an unsuccessful bid in 1947 for a seat on the Los Angeles city council, Roybal helped start the Community Service Organization (CSO), which sought to ally the city’s diverse neighborhoods, using strategies outlined by noted reformer Saul Alinsky. Roybal was the group’s first president and its primary spokesman, and in addition to pushing an array of progressive issues, the CSO quickly became the core of Roybal’s political base.5 Two years later, at Alinsky’s urging, and with the support of local labor unions and, eventually, several newspapers, Roybal mounted a second attempt for a city council seat.
In 1949, backed by this broad coalition, Roybal won the election, becoming the first Hispanic to serve on the Los Angeles city council since 1881 and one of the highest-ranking Latinos in California municipal government.6 Roybal’s sweeping civil rights agenda, along with his diverse campaign staff and his drive to register voters, contributed to his decisive victory against incumbent Parley P. Christensen. Roybal won the general election with 63 percent of the vote, and despite redistricting and shifts in population over the next decade, he went on to win re-election by huge margins in 1951, 1953, 1957, and 1961.7
Neither Roybal’s widespread support in his district nor his position on the city council inoculated him against the prevalent discrimination in the rest of Los Angeles. At his initial council meeting, Roybal was introduced as “our new Mexican councilman who also speaks Mexican.” Years later, Roybal alluded to that incident as a defining moment in his political career. “I’m not Mexican,” he said. “I am a Mexican American. And I don’t speak a word of Mexican. I speak Spanish.”8
Roybal was in the minority on the city council, and the dominant conservative members were indifferent to much of his agenda. “They thought I would fall flat on my face,” he said later. “They felt right along that I was not their equal.”9 Nevertheless, he chaired the public health and welfare committee and developed a reputation as a stalwart liberal who took stands on matters of principle despite the potential for criticism from voters and the outright derision of his colleagues. During the Cold War, for instance, Roybal was the only person who voted against the Subversive Registration Bill and its mandatory oaths of loyalty to the U.S. government.10 This independence persisted throughout Roybal’s career on Capitol Hill; Roybal “voted his conscience, even when people made fun of him,” recalled a principal aide.11
Roybal’s strength was constituent service; he attended district functions, served as a general ombudsman for everyday issues, and worked with the city to defuse tensions between the Mexican-American community and the Los Angeles police.12 Moreover, as the most visible Hispanic officeholder in Los Angeles, he was the primary “spokesman for communities of color,” according to one historian. In a highly publicized episode, Roybal fought the city after it ceded a huge swath of residential land to its professional baseball team, displacing many Mexican-American families—even though the location was outside his council district.13 In 1954 he launched an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor of California, and in 1958, he narrowly lost a bid to become the first Latino member of the Los Angeles County board of supervisors.14
In 1962, after California gained eight additional seats in the U.S. House because of a population increase, Roybal entered the race for the newly created 30th District seat spanning his Eastside council district, downtown Los Angeles, and portions of Hollywood to the west. His platform reflected many of the community issues he had pursued during his 13 years on the council, including job creation, education, housing, and urban renewal. The CSO and the labor unions backed Roybal, but the state’s Democratic Party remained uncommitted since it had drawn the district with another candidate in mind. Chief among Roybal’s opponents in the primary was William F. Fitzgerald, a professor at Loyola University. Three other minor candidates filled out the field. The Los Angeles County Democratic central committee did not endorse either of the two leading candidates in the run-up to the June 1962 primary, but Roybal secured the support of state controller and future U.S. Senator Alan Cranston shortly before the election. With strong grass-roots backing and wide name recognition, Roybal easily captured the Democratic nomination by a three to one margin.15
Flush with a public endorsement from President John F. Kennedy, Roybal faced nine-term incumbent and Republican torchbearer Gordon L. McDonough in the 1962 general election. McDonough had lost much of his political base when the state legislature redrew California’s congressional map, giving Democrats a significant registration advantage in the new district.16 In a midterm election during which Democrats comfortably retained control of the House, Roybal won with nearly 57 percent of the vote.17 In his subsequent 14 bids for re-election, he was never seriously challenged in the Democratic primary, and he never received less than two-thirds of the vote in the general election.18 Early on, Roybal said, “Since I want to make my own decisions I shouldn’t accept any contributions which I couldn’t easily repay.”19 By 1980 his re-election bid was known as “one of the least expensive campaigns in the House of Representatives.”20
In the House, Roybal developed a low-key, behind-the-scenes approach that some described as elegant. He had what the Los Angeles Times called a “quiet energy,” and a major political study in the 1990s dubbed Roybal “durable.” “Despite a style few would call dynamic, he has become a part of the political landscape in the Hispanic neighborhoods of East Los Angeles,” the study said. “He was a quiet ground-breaker,” recalled a senior aide. “Many of his accomplishments go unrecognized because he did things in a quiet way.”21
As a freshman at the start the 88th Congress (1963–1965), Roybal hoped to serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee because of his interest in U.S.-Latin American policy, but instead he was assigned to the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and later to the Post Office and Civil Service Committee.22 In two years he won a seat on Foreign Affairs and left his previous assignments. After serving on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the 91st Congress (1969–1971), Roybal relinquished the Foreign Affairs and the Veterans’ Affairs assignments in 1971 for a seat on the exclusive Appropriations Committee. By the time he retired two decades later, Roybal had become chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government. He was also a longtime member of the House Select Committee on Aging, which he chaired from 1983 to 1993 (98th–102nd Congresses).
Roybal tended to think locally and legislate nationally, balancing the needs of his Los Angeles constituency with those of America’s growing Hispanic population. His pleas to strengthen the country’s public services, especially those benefitting large minority populations, were passionate and effective. He supported the progressive agendas of the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations but opposed the continuation of the government’s Bracero Program, which exploited immigrant farm workers.23
Education reform represented an early but short-lived victory for Roybal, who had grown frustrated with the inability of the public school system to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse society. Though Roybal’s education bill did not make it out of committee in 1967, he provided crucial testimony in a Senate hearing in Los Angeles. “Up to now in our schools, millions of young people who speak a language other than English have been cheated or damaged or both by ill-informed educational policies which have made of their bilingualism an ugly disadvantage in their lives.”24 After bilingualism was cast as both a civil right and a matter of national defense, education reform progressed in a relatively straightforward manner during in the late 1960s. A provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Amendments of 1967, the Bilingual Education Act outlined a three-year appropriations schedule to fund bilingual programs, including increases in the amount of money awarded each year.25 Fourteen years later, Roybal found himself in another fight for access to bilingual instruction. “The children of our community continue to be shortchanged by this nation’s educational system—a system, that Hispanics, like all Americans, help support through the billions of tax dollars they pay,” he lamented in a letter to the editor in the Washington Post.26
Early during his tenure on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Roybal emerged as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, citing the high casualty rate among Hispanic-American troops and its devastating effect at home.27 Joining other lawmakers, Roybal filed an injunction to end the conflict, arguing later that more-progressive domestic policies could help stop the destruction. Many Hispanic soldiers enlisted “to obtain some form of specialized training” because they could not afford to pay for college, he noted. But, he asked, “Is not the loss of one’s life perhaps too high tuition to pay for education?”28
Roybal’s tendency to speak out against such inequities, which began during his days on the Los Angeles city council, set the course for the rest of his congressional career. “Yes, there was discrimination when I first came here.… There were instances in which invitations were extended but not to the congressman from California,” he told a reporter in 1987.29 But as in the past, Roybal’s perseverance forced others to take notice, and by the early 1970s he spoke of his valuable relationships with other Members.30 Roybal’s understated political style masked an ambitious legislative energy; in the 93rd Congress alone (1973–1975) he introduced 242 bills.31 Roybal’s drive extended well beyond the House Chamber, and in 1976 he helped found the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), a legislative service organization that monitored policy directly affecting the nation’s Hispanic communities.32 Like the CSO, the CHC, despite its small size, had a national presence, encouraging Jimmy Carter just days into his presidency to hire more Hispanic Americans in his administration.33 Sensitive to the needs of the nation’s growing immigrant population, the CHC also pushed the Census Bureau to more accurately identify changes in the country’s shifting demographics. “We cannot expect federal programs to serve Hispanics equitably unless they have adequate information on this population,” Roybal said.34
Roybal’s agenda was progressive but moderate during his career, irking his more radical constituency, and in 1970 the Congress of Mexican-American Unity refused to support his re-election bid. “The move was sparked by young, militant Chicano delegates who said Roybal was not responsive enough to political currents in the Mexican-American community,” observed the Los Angeles Times; a law student went so far as to call him “a dormant congressman.”35 But Roybal consistently managed to influence the political system from within, and he spoke out against injustices that were usually ignored in national debates. The Los Angeles Times threw its support behind Roybal, describing him as “an eloquent, effective spokesman for minorities, since he went to Congress.”36
With his growing reputation, Roybal undertook efforts to marshal Hispanic politicians across the country. During his chairmanship of the CHC, he also directed the National Association of Latino Democratic Officials (NALADO), a party organization, and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), a nonpartisan catchall league offering guidance to the country’s varied Hispanic interest groups.37 Unsurprisingly, the activities of the CHC, NALADO, and NALEO often mutually reinforced each other, with NALEO organizing voter registration drives in the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of a push to make U.S. citizenship more accessible.38 When Roybal died two decades later, NALEO reported a roster of more than 6,000 members.39
Roybal’s career was not without controversy. In 1978 he became ensnared in a widely reported ethics investigation that involved a number of sitting and former Members and a lobbyist, Tongsun Park. That year the House Ethics Committee charged Roybal with four counts of failing to disclose campaign donations, accepting campaign funds for personal use, and giving false and misleading testimony.40 Roybal acknowledged a “mistake in judgment” but said he had “too much respect to willfully or intentionally lie” about what had happened.41 The committee found Roybal guilty on three of four counts and unanimously recommended a formal censure—the second-most-severe punishment under House Rules—which would strip him of his seniority and his standing in committee.42
Many viewed this punishment as being overly harsh, and Roybal’s constituents as well as House Democrats in Washington were outraged. Censure was far more serious than the reprimand that was suggested for two white Members from California, Charles H. Wilson and John McFall, who were also found guilty of taking money and misleading the investigation. In Los Angeles, Hispanic interest groups protested the verdict. The president of the influential National Council of La Raza called the proceedings an attempt “to render ineffective the leading Hispanic voice in the House,” and in Washington the CHC and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) questioned whether Roybal had received a fair trial.43 When the full House voted on Roybal’s punishment, the California delegation managed to reduce it to a reprimand. “This is certainly a victory for me, for the civil rights of all congressmen, and for all Americans who believe in the constitutional rights to equal justice,” Roybal said. It also demonstrated “the potential strength of the Hispanic community when it unifies behind a cause,” he noted.44
The ethics case had little effect on Roybal’s career. His constituents in Los Angeles remained loyal, and in the next decade he became chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government and chairman of the Select Committee on Aging.45 During the 1980s, Roybal became “the conscience of the House” on immigration policy, as Representative Barbara Boxer of California dubbed him. Another Democrat said that he had assumed “national leadership of the Hispanic community” at a time when Hispanic-American voters had more influence than ever before.46
Roybal knew the country needed to update its immigration policy, but he disagreed with the series of bills in the early 1980s that would have made naturalization possible for millions of immigrants living in the United States while imposing heavy fines on businesses with undocumented employees. Afraid that the bill would cause widespread discrimination, Roybal and his colleagues pressured House leadership in the fall of 1983, and the measure never went to the floor for votes.47 Encouraged, a year later they submitted a separate immigration measure that would better enforce existing labor laws, but the bill never made it out of committee.48 When the much-debated Immigration Reform and Control Act—complete with the economic sanctions Roybal had opposed—became law in 1986, he railed against it but agreed to work with officials to address his constituents’ concerns. “If it fails in Los Angeles it will fail everywhere,” he said.49 Still fighting a year later, Roybal introduced an amendment offering amnesty to families that qualified for residency.50
Roybal broadened his legislative agenda in the latter half of his career, largely after he became chairman of the Select Committee on Aging. As he had fought ethnic and racial discrimination, Roybal worked in the 1980s to combat age discrimination. He had become alarmed at how little people knew about the care that was provided to elderly and dependent persons.51 Roybal’s generation had lived through the Depression and fought in World War II, and as chairman he focused on hospice care and protection for America’s seniors. He also sought to protect housing programs and seniors’ Social Security benefits. Roybal believed proper medical and health care was as much a consumer issue as a matter of human dignity, and in 1986 and in 1987, he introduced the “Homecare Quality Assurance Act,” which included “a federal bill of rights for home care consumers.” Senior abuse and neglect were among the concerns Roybal brought to the nation’s attention in late July 1986 in a hearing before the Select Committee on Aging titled the “Black Box of Home Care Quality.”52
Under Roybal’s leadership, the Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government Subcommittee took a measured approach to federal spending. With jurisdiction over agencies ranging from the General Services Administration (GSA) to the U.S. Postal Service, Roybal’s subcommittee was responsible for much of the basic administration of the U.S. government.53 Foremost among the subcommittee’s embattled policy issues were postal subsidies and federal funding for the IRS and the U.S. Customs Service. Faced with a deepening recession, Roybal and fellow Democrats advocated bolstering each program. “If you want to do something about the deficit, you can’t continue to reduce money for agencies that produce revenues for the Treasury of the United States,” he said in 1985.54 Roybal was a pragmatic chairman, and six years later when the subcommittee had a tight spending limit, he omitted all pork barrel expenditures (special projects requested by individual Members) from the House legislation. “The rest of the committee felt that the chairman’s idea made sense,” a House Democrat confided.55 In Roybal’s 10 years at the helm of the Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government Subcommittee, its annual spending grew from $10 billion to nearly $23 billion, reflecting the gradual growth in federal obligations.56
Despite his position as chairman, Roybal made few headlines—a testament to his quiet and efficient style. He had a good relationship with his staff; for example, of the 1989 Treasury bill, Roybal said, “The language is not acceptable to the staff, and I can’t work with a staff that’s not happy.”57 With House colleagues, Roybal was firm, but evenhanded. Asked by a reporter if he would pressure the committee’s Ranking Minority Member about a spending measure, Roybal smiled and said, “I’m not going to put any pressure on him.… I’m going to ask him for help.”58
Called “a model of dignity” by the Los Angeles Times, Roybal announced his retirement in 1992.59 Redistricting that resulted from the 1990 Census had severed his traditional power base in East Los Angeles. That fall, his daughter Lucille Roybal-Allard won election to the House as a Democrat from a new district that included constituents who had once been her father’s.
After leaving the House, Roybal retired and moved back to Los Angeles, where he lived for 12 more years, deeply involved in the community he had long served. On October 24, 2005, Roybal died of respiratory failure at a Pasadena hospital.60 In Washington, Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado noted that Roybal had inspired him to go into public service. “He fought social injustice on the streets, in our classrooms, and in the halls of Congress,” Salazar said. “Throughout his life, he gave voice to the disenfranchised and offered hope to the sick.”61
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
[ Top ]