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Governor Won’t Seek Reelection : Deukmejian to Turn Focus on Private Sector

Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

Grinning happily, Gov. George Deukmejian announced Thursday that he will not run for a third term in 1990 and instead will look for “new challenges” in the more lucrative private sector.

The Republican governor said he decided, among other things, that he could be more effective dealing with the Democratic-controlled Legislature in the next two years if he did not run for reelection. Pledging a special effort to “personally reach out” to legislative leaders, Deukmejian said he hopes they can cooperate to resolve pressing problems of transportation, health care, waste disposal and “restructuring” of the increasingly restrictive state budget process.

He called it “a very large window of opportunity” for political bipartisanship.

Possible Burnout

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But there are growing indications that Deukmejian--who will be 62 when his term expires and will have served 28 years in elective state office--has become, in many respects, beaten down and burned out from constantly warring with the Legislature. And this played a major role in his decision, insiders suggested.

The governor himself acknowledged to reporters that his decision would have been “tougher” had Republicans controlled the Legislature.

Deukmejian made up his mind over the holidays--at his home in Long Beach--and then kept the decision to himself and his family until less than an hour before he walked into a packed press conference. Sporting a wide grin, he immediately told reporters: “I’d like to wish each of you a very happy new year. And I can tell you that 1989 and 1990 are both going to be very good years for me, because I’ve decided not to run for a third term. So, I’m expecting to enjoy these next two years very, very much.”

But later Deukmejian--a devout sports fan--used a football metaphor to emphasize that he does not intend to dog it the rest of his term: “I’m not going to ground the ball and wait for the clock to run out.”

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Even the governor’s closest advisers were not told of his decision until minutes before he announced it publicly. However, nobody was surprised. He clearly had been leaning in the direction of retiring.

Deukmejian’s announcement immediately changed California’s political chemistry and set off a wave of intense speculation about who might replace him as the 1990 Republican gubernatorial nominee. The strongest candidate, most political professionals seemed to feel, would be U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson. But Wilson last year won reelection to a second six-year term and advisers have said he would be reluctant to wage another campaign so soon.

Ueberroth Mentioned

Outgoing Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth frequently has been talked about within Republican and corporate circles as a potentially strong “celebrity” candidate who would begin the race with high name identification. But Ueberroth has been silent about any political ambitions.

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State Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno, who also has been mentioned as a potential candidate, seemed to take himself out of the competition by declaring after Deukmejian’s announcement that he intends to run for reelection to the Legislature.

The only Republican who has indicated he would like to run for governor if Deukmejian bowed out is Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.

Deukmejian’s advisers have expressed confidence in recent weeks that the governor could have beaten the early Democratic front-runner, state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp. They insisted that the former Los Angeles district attorney carries some of the same “liberal baggage” on law enforcement that Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis did last year.

But they also acknowledged that the possibility of losing a reelection race was one of the many factors in Deukmejian’s decision. He was a young legislator in 1966 when Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown ran for a third term and was beaten badly by Ronald Reagan. And this left a lasting impression on Deukmejian, associates said.

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Also, advisers said, Deukmejian has grown weary of campaigning and shuddered at the thought of another race--the next one certain to be tougher than his landslide reelection victory over Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in 1986. While stumping throughout California with George Bush in last year’s presidential race, an aide recalled, “He’d look at the campaign schedule--six, eight events a day--and say, ‘How does (Bush) do that? How does he survive?’ He’d just shake his head.”

Still Popular in Polls

If Deukmejian had run and won--and public opinion polls showed him to be still highly popular with voters--he would have become only the second California governor to have been elected to three terms. And if he had served out his third term, he would have set a new record for longevity, because the other three-term governor, the legendary Earl Warren, left office two years after reelection to become chief justice of the United States.

“I didn’t come to public office for the purpose of setting some record of longevity,” Deukmejian said in his opening statement Thursday. “I came to public office to try to make California a safer place to live and to create more opportunities for all of the residents of our state.”

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He added, “My decision was made easier by the satisfaction that we have accomplished much of our original agenda.” He cited education reform, a strengthened economy, a good business climate, elimination of an inherited budget deficit, welfare reform, new prisons and the “appointment of hundreds of common-sense judges.”

Insiders said, however, that Deukmejian had difficulty coming up with a compelling agenda for a third term.

“His feeling is he’s accomplished what he set out to accomplish. Now, he feels it’s time to let someone else accomplish what they want to accomplish,” said Steven A. Merksamer, the governor’s first-term chief-of-staff who remains one of his closest political advisers.

But associates also said that Deukmejian, a man of modest means, was concerned about building a financial nest egg for his family. Deukmejian, who earns $85,000 as governor, said he has not decided what to do after leaving Sacramento. But, as a former state attorney general and governor, he clearly will have many options--such as entering private law practice, becoming a corporate executive, joining corporate boards, or a combination.

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Earning Power

“I’d kind of like to move on to new challenges. And I think there will be some additional new challenges in the private sector,” the governor told reporters. Deukmejian advisers have speculated that, with his prestige, experience and contacts, the governor could earn several hundred thousand dollars a year outside of government.

Deukmejian insisted that he has no interest in joining the Bush Administration or serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. If he wanted to stay in public life, he said, he would run for reelection. “This is the best job as far as I’m concerned,” the governor said.

Deukmejian dismissed a suggestion that his political position might now become weaker in the Legislature’s eyes because he will be a short-timer, a “lame duck.” Lawmakers still must come to him to get their bills signed into law, he noted.

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And although he intends to “reach out” more to the Legislature, he will not change his basic style, said the governor, who has been accused of stubbornness and being too remote. “You can’t teach old dogs like me new tricks,” Deukmejian observed, almost under his breath.

Illustrative of his lukewarm relationship with the Legislature, Deukmejian’s announcement of pending retirement drew these prepared comments from Democratic leaders:

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco)--"In many ways it is the state’s loss that Gov. Deukmejian does not wish to be a part of policy-making any more. He has not been as horrible as we have sometimes painted him to be.”

Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles): “We wish him well in all his future endeavors.”

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The two Democrats both added that they hope to work cooperatively with the governor in the next two years.

Although Deukmejian insisted during the press conference that “I’ve really enjoyed” being governor, people close to him have said there has been far less joy and more frustration during his second term. Contrasted to his first term--a period of new challenge, victories and exhilaration--Deukmejian in the last two years has taken a political pounding.

Among other things in Deukmejian’s second term, the Legislature rejected his nomination of Daniel E. Lungren to be state treasurer, voters turned down his ambitious transportation bond plan, he initially proposed a tax increase to balance the state’s books and then backed off in anger and embarrassment, and state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig won the final round in a long battle over education funds by persuading voters to approve Proposition 98.

Restrictions on Spending Options

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And looking at a possible third term, Deukmejian saw even more potential frustration with new voter-approved restrictions on a governor’s spending options and Democrats in solid control of the Legislature. “They seemed to want to create a picture, a record, of my stewardship as being one who would be constantly denying funds to people,” the governor lamented Thursday.

In short, much of the fun had gone out of the job, intimates said, and that was a big factor in his decision.

In deciding not to run, Deukmejian said he rejected the arguments of most Republican leaders, including President Reagan, that without him in the race a Democrat is more likely to capture the governor’s office--a prospect particularly crucial in 1990 because congressional and legislative districts will be reapportioned in 1991. Deukmejian said that another candidate would be just as electable as himself--"maybe” even more so--because a “fresh face” would not have a record as governor for Democrats to shoot at.

Ken Khachigian, a longtime Deukmejian adviser and friend, summed up the governor’s frame of mind this way: “As Ecclesiastes says, ‘For everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the Heaven . . . a time to keep and a time to cast away.’ ”

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