The end of an era. The passing of a titan. A remarkable man who shaped the history of the city, for good or for ill.
All true, but none of it does justice to the man himself.
I had the privilege of serving on city council with Bob Isaac from 1991 until his unexpected resignation in early 1997. Bob was by turns inspiring, infuriating, cantankerous, loyal, Machiavellian, tough as nails and deeply compassionate — sometimes in a single council meeting.
But he was nonetheless constant in three respects. He was smart — smarter than you, smarter than me and smarter than the smoothest-talking lawyer. He loved the city of his birth. And he was utterly incorruptible.
Isaac cared passionately for equality of opportunity and for the even-handed application of the law. He wasn’t a crusader or a speechmaker — he just acted, and expected that his fellow conservatives would support him because he was in the right.
As a Municipal Court judge, Isaac was on the bench when a group of Hispanic men were brought before him, charged with illegal gambling.
Addressing the prosecuting attorney, Isaac asked whether he was aware that high-stakes card games routinely took place at the exclusive El Paso Club.
The prosecutor said yes, he’d heard that rumor.
Isaac then brought his gavel down and said “I’m dismissing all charges against these men. And unless and until I see all the members of the El Paso Club brought down here on the same charges, I never again want to see people charged for betting a few bucks in a private card game.”
It was always interesting to walk down Tejon Street with Bob. Everyone knew him, everyone stopped to talk.
One morning, we ran into El Pomar chief Bill Hybl, then, as now, one of the most powerful men in the city, with whom Bob chatted briefly. Next up, a homeless man, who bent Bob’s ear for 10 minutes. Isaac treated him with same courtesy and respect that he gave Hybl.
Walking on, he said, smiling, “Those are our people, John! That guy voted for me — and I’m pretty sure Hybl didn’t.”
All of us who loved him will be able to pay our last respects this morning at the City Auditorium. The venue couldn’t be more appropriate. Bob loved the old “Aud” — and without his remarkable political skills, the auditorium would no longer exist.
During 1993, city staff had been directed to find a way to pay for the construction of a new Municipal Court building, which was urgently needed. Money was tight — and staff came up with a solution. They proposed to convert the auditorium into a courts building, thereby saving millions.
Bob hated the idea, but in the time of Doug Bruce’s ascendancy, he knew better than to base his opposition on the need for historic preservation, or similarly liberal notions. Council was scheduled to receive a presentation at the next informal meeting — and then make a decision at a future formal meeting.
Informal meetings were usually lightly attended because residents could only listen. But this time, the room was packed. Feigning surprise, Bob addressed a woman seated in the front row.
“Irma, what are all you folks doing here?” he asked. “We’re not that much fun to watch, are we?”
“Mayor Bob, we’re very concerned about the auditorium!” she said.
“Well, you know that you can’t speak at an informal, but … there certainly seems to be a lot of interest,” Bob said. “If council has no objection, let’s schedule an evening meeting at the auditorium to discuss this project, and all you folks can come. Who among us would deny these good people their say?”
A couple of weeks later, we took our seats at a long table on the auditorium stage. Before us, a sea of a faces — hundreds and hundreds of angry voters. One by one, they came forward and blasted the plan, as staffers squirmed, councilmembers looked for someplace to hide and Bob presided over all with a beatific smile.
He had, of course, orchestrated the whole thing.
After an hour or so, the mayor cleared his throat, and in that deep, gravelly, authoritative voice that we knew so well, addressed the city manager.
“Well,” he said “there doesn’t seem to be any public support for your plan. I guess we’ll just have to look elsewhere. I’ll entertain a motion to adjourn.”
And that was that.
The city left the auditorium alone, and built a new courthouse across the street, naming it after Bob. It was an honor richly deserved — and I know that it pleased him, although he cared little for fame or for money.
Once, when I tried to flatter him by suggesting that the airport be named after him, he demurred.
“I don’t think so — I’ve made too many people mad. Maybe they’ll name one of those wastewater treatment ponds down on Las Vegas (Street) for me. The Robert M. Isaac sludge pond — I know there’ll be plenty of support for that!”
Rest in peace, Bob.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.