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Dymally Recalls Lockup of GOP in 1963

Times Staff Writer

Mervyn Dymally, the only man still in the Legislature who witnessed Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh’s notorious overnight lockup of Assembly Republicans in 1963, sat alone at his desk Tuesday as the Assembly spun out of control for more than 24 hours.

Although both this Assembly deadlock and Unruh’s raw display of political muscle dealt with the state budget, the similarity stops there, said Dymally, then a freshman Democrat from Compton.

“This one is ideological. The other was a ‘show me who is in charge,’ ” Dymally, 77, recalled as he skimmed a chapter from a book that recounted the overnight lockup of the minority Republicans 40 years ago.

In those days, he said, Republicans and Democrats battled, but knew how to negotiate and compromise. Today’s term-limited lawmakers “absolutely” do not exercise such skills, Dymally said.

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“People were not so uptight then,” he said. “We had very good social relationships.”

Dymally recalled that Republicans and Democrats would wage ferocious partisan battles all day, but gather at night in bars and restaurants where differences were put aside. “We’d fuss and fight, but we’d end up at the Firehouse [restaurant] that night,” he said.

Now, he said, friendships that cross party lines are “not part of the mantra at all” in Sacramento.

The 1963 lockup occurred after Unruh and others returned from drinking a long lunch and prepared to take up the state budget bill for passage. But in what Dymally described as playful mischief that went haywire, a group of moderate Republicans blocked a supplemental bill to the state budget because Unruh refused to disclose to them the contents of a separate bill for splitting money between urban and rural schools. They refused to vote.

Angry, Unruh -- an imposing figure whose arrogance of power was offset by a towering intellect and extraordinary political skills -- ordered the Republicans confined in the locked Assembly chamber until they voted on the budget bill.

Some napped at their desks. One stretched out on a cot. Most were hungry because they had been denied food. Staffers sneaked snacks in to some members.

Almost 23 hours after it started, Unruh, who was characterized as having spent much of the interim at a bar across the street, relented. Republicans examined the education bill. The state budget then was passed with votes to spare. The 1963 lockdown lasted 26 1/2 hours.

But the latest Assembly lockdown set a record as the longest continuous floor session, the Assembly chief clerk’s office said. “We reached a new record at 2:30 p.m.,” a spokeswoman said. The budget was passed at 3:14 p.m.

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For years, the Legislature has occasionally engaged in all-night meetings, especially during budget season and on the last night before adjournment of the legislative session.

But the 1963 episode was the first time that California legislators had been locked up in an effort to bend them to a speaker’s will.

Unruh, who got his “Big Daddy”’ nickname from Republicans and hated it, received an avalanche of negative publicity from the lockup.

Some analysts believe that his performance that night doomed his political career, costing him the election for governor against incumbent Ronald Reagan in 1970.

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