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Just our Bill

Saturday, December 02, 2000

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.

Pena had a group of 20 iron workers holed up in a motel nearby. He dispatched one who grabbed Bill and hustled him out of the school.

"He was pushing him across a yard and backed him into the school building," Pena remembered.

Others in Phoenix remember Operation Eagle Eye, too.

Charlie Stevens, then the head of the local Young Republicans, said he got a phone call from the same lawyer Pena remembered throwing out of Bethune School. The guy wanted to know why Charlie hadn't joined Operation Eagle Eye.

"I think they called them flying squads," Stevens said. "It was perfectly legal. The law at the time was that you had to be able to read English and interpret what you read."

But he didn't like the idea and he told Bill this.

"My parents were immigrants," Stevens said. They'd settled in Cleveland, Ohio, a pair of Greeks driven out of Turkey who arrived in the United States with broken English and a desire to be American. After their son went to law school and settled in Phoenix, he even Americanized the name. Charlie Tsoukalas became Charlie Stevens.

"I didn't think it was proper to challenge my dad or my mother to interpret the Constitution," Stevens said. "Even people who are born here have trouble interpreting the Constitution. Lawyers have trouble interpreting it."

The guy told Stevens that if he felt that way about it, then he could take a pass.

There was nothing illegal going on there, Stevens said.

"It just violated my principles. I had a poor family. I grew up in the projects in Cleveland, Ohio."

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, presided yesterday over a case that centers on whether every vote for president was properly recorded in the state of Florida.

In his confirmation hearings for the court in 1971, Rehnquist denied personally intimidating voters and gave the explanation that he might have been called to polling places on Election Day to arbitrate disputes over voter qualifications. Fifteen years later, three more witnesses, including a deputy U.S. attorney, told of being called to polling places and having angry voters point to Rehnquist as their tormentor. His defenders suggested it was a case of mistaken identity.

Now, with the presidency in the balance, Rehnquist has been asked to read passages of the Constitution and interpret them. Once again, a reading and interpretation will determine whose vote gets to count.



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