Sunday, September 04, 2005

He's giving literacy tests to the angels, now.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is dead. This is part of his legacy:

Lito Pena is sure of his memory. Thirty-six years ago he, then a Democratic Party poll watcher, got into a shoving match with a Republican who had spent the opening hours of the 1964 election doing his damnedest to keep people from voting in south Phoenix.
"He was holding up minority voters because he knew they were going to vote Democratic," said Pena.
The guy called himself Bill. He knew the law and applied it with the precision of a swordsman. He sat at the table at the Bethune School, a polling place brimming with black citizens, and quizzed voters ad nauseam about where they were from, how long they'd lived there - every question in the book. A passage of the Constitution was read and people who spoke broken English were ordered to interpret it to prove they had the language skills to vote.
By the time Pena arrived at Bethune, he said, the line to vote was four abreast and a block long. People were giving up and going home.
Pena told the guy to leave. They got into an argument. Shoving followed. Arizona politics can be raw.
Finally, Pena said, the guy raised a fist as if he was fixing to throw a punch.
"I said 'If that's what you want, I'll get someone to take you out of here'"
Party leaders told him not to get physical, but this was the second straight election in which Republicans had sent out people to intellectually rough up the voters. The project even had a name: Operation Eagle Eye. . . .
Operation Eagle Eye had a two-year run. Eventually, Arizona changed the laws that had allowed the kind of challenges that had devolved into bullying.
Pena went on to serve 30 years in the Arizona State Legislature. Stevens became a prosperous and well-regarded lawyer in Phoenix and helped Sandra Day O'Connor get her start in law.
The guy Pena remembers tossing out of Bethune School prospered, too. Bill Rehnquist, now better known as William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. . . .

Truly, he was the bleeding edge of Republican political tactics.