Ken Cory, a three-term Democratic state controller and self-described “basketball bum” who just happened to get elected to public office, died Friday at his home in the Sacramento suburb of Loomis. He was 61.
Cory, a protege of longtime Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh, had been found to have prostate cancer a year ago. The news prompted him to become involved in a national effort to raise money for prostate cancer research.
“He was optimistic he could beat it, but things went downhill fast,” said John Jervis, a Sacramento public relations executive who had served as Cory’s press secretary.
Carl D’Agostino, Cory’s former chief of staff and a Democratic political consultant, said he visited with Cory on Thursday night and it was clear he was dying.
Only a week before, D’Agostino said, he and Cory had relished news of the Democratic victories throughout the state--even in Cory’s former political haunts in Orange County.
“He was amazed at the Orange County results,” said D’Agostino, referring to Democratic victories in the Legislature and the Congress.
Cory, whose 22-year political career made him a state Capitol fixture, began his public service as an assemblyman from Orange County. In 1974, he was elected state controller, winning the election as “the man oil companies fear most.”
Cory shocked the California Democratic establishment in 1986 by abruptly announcing that he would not seek a fourth term as controller. His departure paved the way for Democrat Gray Davis to run for the empty seat, which Davis won. It became a launching pad for Davis’ subsequent success, which culminated last week in his election as California’s next governor.
During his public service, Cory’s good nature and boyish charm made him a popular figure with Democrats and Republicans. His favorite topic of conversation was basketball, and his passion for the game was legendary.
“He was a very compassionate person,” Jervis said. “He was always looking out for the little guy.”
But as controller, he was controversial. He received accolades when he sued several major banks for wiping out dormant accounts with huge service charges. Most banks settled with Cory, but Bank of America--which did not--ended up paying the state $57 million.
Cory drew criticism for accepting a $522,000 campaign loan from a pair of Orange County supporters, one of whom was later convicted of embezzlement. And he was involved in a controversial 1982 loan of $500 million from the state Teachers Retirement System to a Colorado oil company. As controller, Cory was a member of the board of the teachers retirement system.
A native of Kansas City, Mo., who moved to Long Beach as a young child, Cory attended college at UCLA, UC Berkeley and USC.
Since leaving the controller’s office, Cory had been involved in investments, associates said.
Cory is survived by his wife, Carole, and children Richard Philip, Janet Elizabeth and David William.