Everyday Guy for Everyday People : Deukmejian Makes His Mark as Person First, Politician Second

<i> Steve Peace, a Democrat, is a member of the California Assembly from Chula Vista</i>

What would happen if one morning a normal everyday person, one with no pretense for glory or obsession for grand accomplishment, woke to discover that he had been elected the governor of California?

For the past six years we have been finding out. Last Thursday, however, Gov. George Deukmejian, characteristically choosing the needs of his family over the demands of other politicians, announced that he would not seek a third term. By now his choice should have come as no surprise. Yet many politicians seemed stunned. They had misread Deukmejian once agian.

Unlike most in public life, Deukmejian has managed to remain a person first and a politician second. For hardened politicians and political analysts alike, this has always been a source of great confusion.

His critics, for example, often decry the governor’s alleged lack of “vision.” They forget that by 1982, the year he was elected to his first term, Californians had grownso weary of the “farsightedness” of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. that Deukmejian’s new look at “common sense” became the very birth child of Brown’s “vision.”


It was calculated public relations. Where Brown dreamed of a California space program, the Duke would build highways. This “common sense” theme would continue to work for Deukmejian over the years because it was consistent with the man who embraced it.

The governor sought to implement values with which the great majority of voting Californians identified. It was a language that people in the real world could understand. But it went right over the heads of many within the political world.

The governor’s reputation for being inflexible has also been nurtured by his fellow politicians’ failure to recognize and deal with him as a real person. When Deukmejian sensed that support was being withheld from an otherwise meritorious proposal in an effort to win concessions on unrelated issues, he was appalled, just as any other honest citizen would have been. And when he said “no” he meant it.

This, of course, has been very confusing to a political world accustomed to winning and losing for reasons unrelated to merit --a world in which “no” means “what do you have to offer?” and “yes” means “you owe me one.”

His ability to put a premium on human, rather than political, motives ultimately became one of the governor’s greatest weapons. Legislators have repeatedly misfired in their attempt to figure out “what the governor really wants.”

These same values, however, have also caused problems. His very human desire never to be embarrassed by a veto over-ride has given right-wing Republicans a tremendous amount of leverage over the governor. Indeed, in the Assembly, many of the Deukmejian’s most significant legislative initiatives--beginning with the 1982 financial plan to wipe out the deficit left over from the Brown Administration--have encountered their most significant opposition from within the Republican caucus.

The governor’s relationship with Senate Democrats has been more strained. This may be due in part to the Senate’s responsibility for confirmation of gubernatorial appointments and Deukmejian’s tendency to view “political” appointments as a very personal affair.

More subtly, his own staffing decisions may also have served to reinforce already held views rather than to challenge and expand the governor’s exposure to new ideas. His respect for the formal hierarchy of the process has also precluded him from dealing around the legislative leadership to work one-on-one with legislators. This has made it almost impossible for him to build any sort of semi-permanent working majority.

Finally, his sense of personal responsibility has meant that “only the governor speaks for the governor.” Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, with more than two decades of legislative involvement, has said that this is the only Administration that he has encountered in which no one other than the governor himself had any authority to make commitments of any kind.

Deukmejian has surely derived a great deal of satisfaction in having successfully implemented many of his “common sense” goals, despite the frustration of having fallen short on others. However, in his press conference last week Deukmejian suggested that he’d like to take a “shot at the moon” himself over the next two years. This just goes to show that even those most solidly rooted to the reality of the present dream of the future.

No doubt Deukmejian will pursue his vision as the same normal, everyday person he has always been. It might be interesting to find out what would happen if 120 normal, everyday men and women woke one morning to discover that they had been elected to the California Legislature and been given two years to share their most private hopes and dreams with “Good Ol’ George.”

Together they just might discover a shared vision of the future that might include the soft echo of our children’s voices in a quiet but sincere chorus of “Thank you.”