George Deukmejian was a governor who insisted on sticking to his campaign promises, but otherwise his agenda seemed limited.
He was committed to courts, prisons and fiscal frugality but he fought with schools and cut human services.
He was honest in an era of glaring corruption, but he was not a strong leader.
“I often wondered why he was in politics because he wasn’t your classic politician,” said Steven A. Merksamer, a close friend and former chief of staff to Deukmejian, whose tenure as California’s 35th governor ends Jan. 7.
“He is a man of tremendous virtue, a man of tremendous personal integrity, a man who says what he means and means what he says. Because he’s personally honest, he was reluctant to engage in deal-making. If the world were full of George Deukmejians, it would be a better place.”
Of course, the world is not that way. Especially the political world. Merksamer, in a few succinct sentences of praise, touched on the flip side of Deukmejian: His unwillingness to compromise. So the verdict is split on his legacy as governor.
As he had promised voters, Deukmejian built more prisons to lock up more criminals, toughened sentences and appointed tough judges, resisted tax increases and held down spending. He also poured more money into public schools, as promised, but his funding commitment gradually declined. Critics contend that his Administration failed to adequately prepare California--including its schools, health care, social services and water systems--for the demands of a booming, sprawling, increasingly diverse population.
“Dr. No” he is sometimes called, largely a reference to his record veto of 2,298 bills, roughly one in every six passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature during his two terms. None was overridden. He also vetoed nearly 1,700 budget items. The Republican governor nixed about $7 billion in proposed spending, mainly from health, welfare and education programs.
Eugene C. Lee, political scientist at UC Berkeley and a longtime student of California government, summed up the retiring governor’s legacy this way: “George Deukmejian might have been a very good governor in a stable state that required basically maintenance government. But a state like California demands much more--a governor who can anticipate problems and address the challenges of the future. . . . Californians in the year 2000 will look back and wonder where was the leadership in the 1980s.”
Deukmejian responds to critics by saying they have judged him by their standards, not his or the voters’, who twice elected him governor.
“They (critics) seem to think you’re going to get elected and then you’re going to carry out their agenda, rather than your own agenda,” the governor said in a recent interview. “Then they beat up on you when you’re just doing what you said you were going to do.”
As for the common complaint that he lacks vision, Deukmejian said when some people “don’t see great, big, new, expensive-type programs with big, fancy labels on them, they say there’s no vision. Well, that’s not true. . . . I measure progress and success based on the number of opportunities you create for people. That doesn’t mean you need to have a lot of new programs.”
The governor particularly is sensitive to being described as “thin-skinned” and “stubborn.” A case study came last summer when the governor and the Legislature became mired in the longest state budget stalemate in history before negotiating a package of higher taxes and spending cuts. The process proved a debacle for both sides.
“Well, I don’t feel that I’m stubborn,” Deukmejian said. “I try to stick by my position and stick by my principles and I feel that’s what a leader is supposed to do. . . . That’s being determined, it’s being resolute.”
Deukmejian said his biggest success as governor was “staying the course” he set as a candidate.
“Deukmejian is the first governor--and maybe the last--to make a strong commitment to prisons, to locking up these miserable (criminals) and separating them from society, those who otherwise would be breaking into your bedroom tonight,” said Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita), a former Los Angeles police chief.
The state had not opened a new prison in 18 years when Deukmejian took office in 1983. He quickly launched the biggest prison construction program in the nation’s history, spending $3.3 billion to build eight penitentiaries--going from 12 to 20--and making seven major additions to existing institutions. The number of locked-up felons tripled, from about 35,000 to nearly 97,000, leaving cells more overcrowded than when Deukmejian began the building.
Perhaps more than any other governor in recent times, Deukmejian will leave a lasting imprint on the California judiciary. His most significant legacy as governor, many believe, was the reshaping of the state Supreme Court from one of the nation’s most liberal to a panel solidly controlled by conservatives. Not only do his appointees hold five of the seven Supreme Court seats, they also fill 55 of the 88 positions on the Court of Appeal. In all, Deukmejian named about 1,000 judges. Nearly half the state judiciary is made up of his appointees.
Despite Deukmejian’s initiatives, the crime rate has barely budged. Critics contend the correctional system has gobbled up precious tax dollars that could have been spent attacking such root causes of crime as inadequate education, health care and job training.
Spending for operation of prisons climbed 310% under Deukmejian, while school expenditures increased 115% and allotments for health and welfare programs rose 98%. Overall, the state budget more than doubled--as it also had under the three previous governors--rising during Deukmejian’s eight years in office by 120%, from $25.3 billion to $55.7 billion.
There is a historical lesson in this: Exploding populations, demands for government services and mandated funding guarantees, coupled with inflation, force each governor to be a record “tax and spender,” no matter how conservative.
Deukmejian is leaving state government in a financial shambles, reminiscent of the way he inherited it from Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. That is casting a personal pall on his retirement celebration, intimates say.
When Deukmejian took office, he faced a $1.5-billion budget deficit. He adroitly erased it with spending cuts and legislation that authorized private borrowing, shoved half the red ink into the next fiscal year and created a standby sales tax increase. Californians were spared the tax hike because the nation’s economy boomed and bailed out Deukmejian with a rush of revenues.
Now, it is deja vu . Gov.-elect Pete Wilson is facing a deficit of roughly $1 billion, plus $6 billion or more of red ink during the next fiscal year. Blame the economic slump, not Deukmejian. By the same token, credit the economy--not Deukmejian--for being the real hero of the state’s financial rescue seven years ago.
Deukmejian, never a wordsmith, always enjoyed telling audiences that he had brought the state “from IOU to A-OK.” A current joke in Sacramento is that Wilson is inheriting “an SOS.”
Looking back, as the governor insists, nobody should have been surprised by his actions--or inaction--if they had paid attention to his first gubernatorial campaign against Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in 1982, or had read anything about his one-term stint as attorney general or his 16 years in the Legislature before that. Through it all, he was a partisan conservative not given to compromise or schmooze, and concerned primarily about law-and-order issues, especially the death penalty.
During the 1982 campaign, Deukmejian emphasized he believed in a government that “keeps within its means,” “makes protection and safety of its citizens its primary task,” and allows people “to pull themselves up not because the government is there, but because government gets out of their way.” He also repeatedly opposed raising taxes. It was Ronald Reagan’s philosophy without the style.
There also was another crucial difference between those two Republican governors. Reagan was more pragmatic and more inclined to compromise. He pushed through the largest tax increase in the state’s history his first year as governor in order to resolve an inherited budget crisis. He even talked then-Sen. Deukmejian into carrying the legislation. Reagan was a salesman, whether his target was a single freshman senator or a statewide television audience. Deukmejian as governor seldom tried to sell anything, or so it seemed.
“Whatever the explanation, he didn’t lead,” said Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan (D-Fresno), chairman of the Assembly Health Committee. One after another in interviews, legislators portrayed Deukmejian as stubborn, uncommunicative and disengaged, though decent and honest.
“The governor did not like to bargain. A vote trade offended his sense of integrity,” said Senate Minority Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno, probably the Legislature’s most influential and respected Republican.
Not only was Deukmejian aloof, he did not use the “carrot and stick” powers of his office. There was little rewarding of friends and punishing of enemies. Sometimes, friends felt they were punished.
Maddy is a good example. He was one of only a handful of legislators who endorsed Deukmejian over the party establishment candidate, Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, in a close race for the 1982 gubernatorial nomination. Ordinarily, that would have bought Maddy a small pipeline into the new governor’s office. But “no one--and I mean no one--in the Legislature became an insider after he was elected,” Maddy said.
“I’ve never wanted to come out and say I didn’t have any clout,” the Republican leader added. But Maddy acknowledged that he really did not have any with Deukmejian. He even had trouble securing gubernatorial appointments to county fair boards for his local political allies.
Legislators covet personal attention, particularly from a governor. When they did not get much of it from Deukmejian, potentially valuable relationships never developed.
“He didn’t take advantage of the office and people’s susceptibility to being corrupted by the power and the glory and the glamour of a governor,” observed Sal Russo, an early Deukmejian adviser who now is a political consultant. “He wasn’t a personality type, a mingler. His idea was to have a fruit salad at his desk and get something done rather than have lunch with some blowhard legislator.”
Unlike Deukmejian, Reagan occasionally invited small groups of legislators over to his house, just to play Ping-Pong or hear him tell old Hollywood stories. Jerry Brown did not entertain, but often mingled with lawmakers at a couple of their nighttime haunts around the Capitol.
Asked during the interview why he did not socialize more, take legislators to dinner, invite them down to his office to chat, or drop by their office--Deukmejian replied: “First of all, we had (mass) dinners every single year for legislators. And mind you now, somebody has to pay for these.” As for “one-on-one stuff,” he said, “I don’t know how any governor can go one on one with 120 legislators. It’s just impossible, time-wise.”
Because Deukmejian had been a legislator, his sorry relationship with lawmakers as governor greatly surprised people--Deukmejian more than anyone. “I no sooner got off the inaugural platform and they were opposing me. It just seemed like they went out of their way to be hostile.”
Almost immediately, the Democratic-controlled Legislature sold the governor’s residence, forcing him to hole up for awhile at a downtown Holiday Inn and then reside for 17 months in a modest apartment while commuting on weekends back home to his wife and children in Long Beach.
“It was insulting to the governor to be treated that way,” Russo said. Finally, a nonprofit foundation bought a ranch-style tract house for Deukmejian to use. Now, Wilson will live there.
“The straw that broke the back” for Deukmejian, according to former top aide Merksamer, was when the Senate denied confirmation of the governor’s choice for state finance director, Michael Franchetti. It also rejected Deukmejian’s appointments of two other cabinet members, although both had been former legislators.
“If the Democrats, in the beginning, had extended any degree of cooperation or friendship or anything, I think we would have been able to work a lot more cooperatively,” Deukmejian said. “And they probably would have wound up, maybe, doing better than they feel that they’ve done.”
In his second term, Deukmejian did develop an occasionally successful working relationship with the four major legislative leaders. He preferred meeting with this group, rather than lower-ranking legislators individually, reasoning that these four were the only lawmakers who had enough clout to get bills passed.
Out of such “leadership meetings” came the $18.5-billion, 10-year transportation improvement plan--financed mostly by a 9-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax increase--that voters endorsed last June. Wedded to his anti-tax philosophy, “The Iron Duke” had to be “dragged kicking and screaming"--in the words of several people--into supporting the plan after dwindling revenues forced an embarrassing six-month moratorium on all new highway construction.
One highway program that fell victim to Deukmejian’s frugality was earthquake retrofitting. Short on money, Caltrans initially gave higher priority to other projects. Consequently, the strengthening of overpasses and bridges moved at a snail’s pace, just as it had under the Brown Administration. After the Nimitz Freeway collapsed during the Oct. 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake, killing 42 people, Deukmejian stepped in and ordered Caltrans to give top priority to a massive retrofitting program.
“Deukmejian leaves office with a better record in transportation than Jerry Brown, but that’s primarily because he rallied in the last two years of his Administration,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco).
The governor consistently cut funding for the state Coastal Commission, promised more than he delivered on toxic waste cleanup, watched as ground water supplies became increasingly contaminated and took a pro-agriculture view of pesticides. The governor did negotiate a major legislative package to control the growth of solid waste, or garbage.
On the fight against AIDS, opinions are mixed. California’s program of AIDS research, education and treatment is widely recognized as the finest in the world. But some AIDS activists complain that Deukmejian was unwilling to spend what was needed. After several years of dramatic increases in AIDS funding, the state reduced its spending this fiscal year by 13%.
One of the few social programs launched by Deukmejian was an innovative “workfare” project that provides education, job training and work experience for welfare recipients. But faced with severe budget problems in the last two years, he cut back state funding for this much-vaunted endeavor.
Deukmejian repeatedly slashed state funds for family planning when abortion opponents complained that the money was going to clinics that performed abortions. “I think it was handled poorly,” said the governor’s own health services director, Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer. “I never understood how folks who are anti-abortion can also be anti-family planning.”
It would be hard to cite a major issue that was handled more poorly than education, at least from a political and public relations standpoint. Deukmejian came to office proclaiming education to be his top budget priority. Schools did fare well during the early years of his Administration. The governor signed and funded a landmark education reform bill sponsored by Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) and State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig.
In his second term, the usually reserved governor got into a caustic, name-calling feud with the outspoken, combative schools chief. That, in large part, led to successful sponsorship by Honig and the education establishment of Proposition 98, guaranteeing elementary and high schools, plus community colleges, 40% of the state’s general fund. Deukmejian has been attempting to dismantle Proposition 98, and Wilson is expected to try.
“There was probably a time when the governor needed to love Honig to death and he didn’t,” said ex-aide Russo.
Deukmejian said bitterly of the debilitating battle: “There was increased funding, there were reforms and we were building on that, but despite this, Honig comes along and he just keeps saying, ‘That’s not enough. That’s not enough. We have to have more. We have to have more.’ There was no end to what he was demanding. . . . And, of course, all he has to look at is education. He doesn’t have to consider the demands for all other state services.
“I’ll tell you, if you talk to any governor, I don’t care who it is, any governor, they will tell you that you can never satisfy the educational establishment. No matter how much you try, they constantly whine and complain. . . . It’s very, very unfair treatment.”
During Deukmejian’s tenure, spending per pupil in elementary and high schools rose 13.2%, when adjusted for inflation. Practically all that increase came during his first term. By the final two years of his Administration, funding per student was declining.
Deukmejian had a much better relationship with higher education. “We really had some very fine budgets,” said William B. Baker, a UC Berkeley vice president for fiscal matters. Deukmejian recently exempted UC and state universities from a $1-billion austerity program he imposed on most of state government.
Deukmejian also is praised for helping to enact legislation banning military-style assault weapons and influencing UC and public employee pension funds to sever their financial ties with firms doing business in South Africa. In each case, Deukmejian dramatically showed that he was capable of reversing position.
Deukmejian is criticized for standing back and watching automobile and health insurance premiums skyrocket without really joining the struggle--so far unsuccessful--to come to grips with the problem. On a smaller scale, he did push through legislation creating an earthquake insurance program for homeowners.
The business community benefited from Deukmejian, according to California Chamber of Commerce President Kirk West. West said the state again became hospitable to entrepreneurship after Jerry Brown’s shaky “era of limits.” West lauded Deukmejian for establishing five foreign trade offices and appointing judges more sympathetic toward business.
Organized labor generally detested Deukmejian. “Utterly barren of social conscience, a man with a 19th-Century mind,” is how Jack Henning, crusty head of the California Labor Federation, described the governor.
Labor scored a big victory over Deukmejian when he tried to destroy Cal/OSHA, arguing that federal occupational safety regulators could fill the void. Labor responded by winning passage of a ballot initiative restoring the state agency. In Deukmejian’s final year as governor, he beat labor on a major issue: gaining voter approval of an initiative authorizing the state to lease inmate workers to private industry.
Labor, business, the governor and the Legislature all got together for a rare period in 1989 to negotiate a sweeping overhaul of California’s system for compensating injured workers.
When historians look back on Deukmejian, aside from assessing the ups and downs of his Administration, they will note a unique political phenomenon: He was the only modern California governor who did not want to be president, or even vice president.
Now 62 and hoping to make big money in private enterprise, most likely as a lawyer, Deukmejian insists he has no regrets about his gubernatorial adventure. “There was never a time when I wasn’t ready and desirous of coming to the office,” he said. “I just thoroughly enjoyed it very, very much. . . . I feel very good, very satisfied.”
But intimates say he has been counting the days for months and can hardly wait until Jan. 7 for some peace and privacy.
Times staff writers Bob Baker, Virginia Ellis, Jerry Gillam, Philip Hager, Carl Ingram, Paul Jacobs, Richard C. Paddock, Douglas P. Shuit, William Trombley and Daniel M. Weintraub also contributed to this story.