Sacramento strongman

Peter Schrag, a columnist and former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author, most recently, of "California: America's High Stakes Experiment."

It’s been a long time since Jesse M. “Big Daddy” Unruh was a household name in California politics. Unruh was, as the cliche goes, “the powerful speaker” of the state Assembly from 1961 to 1969, candidate for governor in 1970 -- he lost to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan by 500,000 votes -- and state treasurer from 1975 until his death in 1987.

So why would anyone want to write Unruh’s biography now? Bill Boyarsky, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, columnist and editor, who covered him and the Legislature for 30 years, asked that same question of the late journalist John Jacobs, biographer of another political big daddy, Phillip Burton, the Democratic congressman best remembered as the “artist” who in 1981 drew California’s modern political map.

Fortunately for us, Jacobs urged Boyarsky to take it on. Not only was Unruh a central player in the forging of California’s great postwar highway, university and water systems and the creation of its progressive governmental institutions, he also was a man with a voracious appetite for food, drink, sex and power -- a larger-than-life personality that matched his political career. It’s those two things combined that makes this story so compelling.


Boyarsky sheds a lot of light on California’s less-than-sedate politics in the decades after World War II, providing a telling perspective on the present state of our political affairs. To paraphrase a bon mot attributed to Will Rogers: Things in California politics were never as good as they used to be.

Unruh, who grew up in hardscrabble sharecropper poverty in rural Texas -- an Okie in all but name -- was an angry, sometimes disagreeable man most of his life. He was angry particularly about the great gap between the privileged and the poor. But he also was a pragmatic politician who relished the game and played it hard, especially for the causes he embraced -- sometimes verging on political blackmail.

Paradoxically, this tough-guy populist, nicknamed for Tennessee Williams’ bullying character in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” so strengthened the power of the state treasurer’s office, never a sexy post, that he ended up hobnobbing with -- and cashing in on -- the very Wall Street bigwigs he was born to hate. California had a lot of money to invest and a lot of bonds to sell, and the treasurer was the key player who picked which brokers and bankers got the fat fees.

Through it all, Unruh lived hard, boozing, playing cards in the hotel suites of Sacramento’s lobbyists and proudly womanizing -- all perks of power -- in a misogynist legislative environment that Boyarsky characterizes as an “animal house.”

The twice-married Unruh “was always on the prowl,” Boyarsky writes. As Assembly speaker, he famously said of the lobbyists who funded the extracurricular benefits afforded Sacramento’s underpaid politicians, “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, . . . take their money and then vote against them you’ve got no business being up here.” We learn that Unruh, never physically attractive, refused prostate surgery -- the cancer would kill him -- because it could leave him impotent.

The working-class Unruh was a centrist who began to fear, correctly, it turned out, the electoral cost of the Democratic Party leftists’ agenda in the mid-1960s. “He knew the meaning,” Boyarsky writes, “of the Democrats’ loss of their blue-collar base” in the 1964 ballot-box battle over the state’s fair-housing law. He also supported the Vietnam War, to borrow a current political phrase, before he opposed it. Unruh’s decision to switch support from President Johnson to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 cost him dearly two years later when he tried to raise money for his gubernatorial race. The promises of Johnson’s Great Society, Unruh said in 1968, had “turned into a virtual nightmare of racial tensions, dispirited youth, rising crime and a mushrooming federal bureaucracy.”


At the same time, Unruh demonstrated his fierce passion for economic and social justice as the author of California’s landmark 1959 civil-rights law, which prohibited discrimination based on race, religion, national origins or gender in employment and public accommodations. He was determined to alleviate the grim conditions in the state’s mental hospitals. And, paradoxically, it was Unruh, a traditional political boss in every sense of the word, who engineered the reforms that created a full-time Legislature staffed by professionals with expertise in the increasingly complex arenas -- water, insurance, education, taxation, mental health, transportation -- that government had to deal with.

Once a national model, California’s full-time Legislature and its professional staff never quite worked out as Unruh had hoped. Many of the staffers became political operatives who spent more time on their bosses’ reelection campaigns and related activities than on substantive questions of state policy.

That became especially true after voters in 1990 approved an initiative imposing legislative term limits, turning the Legislature “into a body of short-timers, a fund-raising machine no longer capable of producing . . . the plans for the future that [Unruh] had envisioned,” Boyarsky writes. The law also sharply cut funding for legislative staffing, but the policy experts, including the respected nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, took the budget hit, not the political hacks.

Boyarsky’s book has both the virtues and the self-imposed limits of good reporting -- and he is an outstanding journalist. “Big Daddy” is full of great stories. Yet one wishes he had risked offering more analysis: How was it possible for the animal house Legislature, often in thrall to special-interest lobbyists, to put in place the great infrastructure projects pushed by Govs. Goodwin Knight and Edmund G. “Pat” Brown -- water, schools, roads -- as well as Unruh’s political reforms?

Boyarsky demonstrates that some of those successes stemmed from the combination of Unruh’s personal charm and sheer political muscle: his willingness to stall the bills of reluctant legislators or opponents, even to lock down the Assembly, until the votes he needed came in. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it backfired. But the author leaves you wanting to know more about how all those great projects were achieved between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s.

Unruh had a famous falling-out with Pat Brown after concluding that the governor had reneged on a promise to support him in his 1966 run for the state’s top job in return for Unruh’s help in Brown’s 1962 reelection campaign against Richard Nixon. Instead of supporting Unruh, Brown ran for a third term (and lost to Reagan by nearly a million votes). But before that -- on such issues as Brown’s big water projects -- they seem to have worked reasonably well together. Unfortunately, Boyarsky tells less than we’d like to know about that collaboration. In this book, Brown has been reduced to a bit player.


Bill Bagley, a young moderate Republican Assembly member during Unruh’s era, once observed that it was precisely because of the lobbyist-provided food and booze -- and the conviviality of the card games at the old Senator Hotel -- that there was less partisanship and personal animosity in those animal house years. You couldn’t very well personally attack the people you played poker with the night before. It was, Bagley slyly suggested, the 1974 Political Reform Act, which prohibited lobbyist-funded wining and dining, that ended all that bipartisan fellowship.

But the state’s growth and its increasing economic and ethnic diversity brought major changes to the larger political culture as well. Although Boyarsky doesn’t explore it, a lot of the big projects were easier to accomplish in the postwar decades. Brown and Unruh may have been as much the creatures of California booming postwar optimism -- often excessive optimism -- as they were its engines.

All that said, “Big Daddy” is a major addition to the distinguished Californian political biographies -- Ethan Rarick on Pat Brown, James Richardson on former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Jacobs on Burton -- published over the last dozen years by the University of California Press. And it’s a fun read.