Bill Roberts, the war horse political consultant who helped manage the elections of two California governors--Ronald Reagan and George Deukmejian--died Thursday at the age of 63.
The cause of death was heart failure, according to a spokesman for Roberts’ Westwood-based Dolphin Group. He had battled diabetes for a decade, progressively losing his legs and much of his vision but never his drive--and was busy at work until the final hours of his life.
In the specialized world of political consultants, Roberts was a celebrated, if sometimes controversial, figure in California for more than half of his life.
Win or lose, big race or small--from the presidency to U.S. Senate to the statehouse and the California Supreme Court--Roberts was a pioneer of modern media-intensive politics in this most media-dominated state.
He was co-manager along with partner Stu Spencer of the 1966 campaign that elected Reagan governor of California. The Spencer-Roberts firm also managed Reagan’s gubernatorial reelection in 1970.
“Bill Roberts and Stu Spencer were certainly the fathers of political consulting in California and made it a full-time profession and a respected profession at the same time,” said Sal Russo, Sacramento-based GOP consultant of a younger generation.
Roberts directed Deukmejian’s election as attorney general in 1978, and managed his first campaign for governor in 1982, until the two had a falling out just before election day. Two years ago, although he was growing noticeably weak in his struggle against diabetes, Roberts directed the unprecedented grass-roots campaign that unseated California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices.
In between, Roberts managed campaigns in California for former U.S. Sen. George Murphy and presidential candidate Nelson A. Rockefeller. In 1976, he went to Florida and helped President Gerald R. Ford in a come-from-behind primary election victory in that state against Reagan. Roberts’ biography lists more than 100 other campaigns along the way.
He had gone to work on Wednesday and then again Thursday morning, busy with plans to organize a political committee on behalf of Vice President George Bush and a fund-raising campaign for Lynn Nofziger, the longtime Reagan associate who is facing prison after being convicted of illegal lobbying.
An associate at the Dolphin Group said Roberts complained that he was not feeling well and returned to his apartment Thursday. In the afternoon, he was found unconscious in bed. He was taken to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, where efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Deukmejian said Thursday that he was saddened by the death.
Born in St. Louis in 1925, Roberts lived most of his life in Southern California. His first mark in Republican politics was made in 1952 when he founded the Santa Monica Young Republicans. Not a month went by for the next 36 years when Roberts was not close to the pulse of California Republican politics.
He is survived by two sisters, Mary King and Jane Thimmesch, both of Reno. Associates said arrangements were pending.