Houston I. Flournoy, a former political science professor who exchanged his college classroom for the rough-and-tumble of California government as a legislator, state controller and gubernatorial candidate, has died. He was 78.
Flournoy, a heavy smoker for years, had emphysema and died Monday of heart failure during a flight from San Diego to Santa Rosa, said his daughter, Jean Korinke, of Davis.
The native New Yorker, who moved to California in the late 1950s to teach at Pomona College, had served two terms in the state Assembly and was in his second term as state controller when he became the Republican nominee for governor against Jerry Brown in 1974. Brown won with 50% of the vote to Flournoy’s 48%.
Flournoy laid most of the blame for his narrow loss on President Ford’s pardon of ex-President Nixon only weeks before California’s general election. The pardon of Nixon, who left the White House during the Watergate scandal, damaged the political fortunes of many Republican candidates, even moderates like Flournoy.
He was one of the last of a breed, a moderate Republican in the tradition of former Gov. Earl Warren, who served in Sacramento during a bipartisan era when no aisle separated Republicans from Democrats in the Legislature.
“We were progressives. We wanted to solve problems, and we did,” former Assemblyman William T. Bagley of San Rafael, who joined the Legislature with Flournoy in 1960, said of his longtime friend and colleague.
As a legislator Flournoy supported a state land-use plan and a full-time air-pollution control board. He also advocated a larger state role in equalizing the funding of rich and poor school districts, in part by imposing a statewide property tax. As controller, he reformed the state’s system for selecting county tax appraisers, who often earned their appointments through political donations.
“Hugh got rid of that system,” Bagley said Wednesday.
Despite his progressive stands, he was portrayed by Brown as a “watered-down” version of then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, whose conservative ideology helped sweep him to Washington in 1980. A graduate of Cornell and Princeton, where he earned his doctorate in 1956, Flournoy first tasted politics in 1955 when he worked as a researcher for the New Jersey Legislature. He later was an assistant to U.S. Sen. H. Alexander Smith of New Jersey.
He moved west in 1957 to teach political science at Pomona College and quickly earned tenure.
“His goal was to become a tenured professor at a very young age. He said, ‘OK, I’ve met my goal, now what do I do?’ ” Korinke said.
In 1960, he ran for the Assembly from Claremont and won. He was one of four Republican “young Turks,” all moderates, who entered the Legislature that year.
Toward the end of his second term, in 1965, he decided to quit politics because he couldn’t support his family on $12,000 a year -- he earned $6,000 a year as a part-time professor and another $6,000 as a part-time legislator. Two days before the deadline, Bagley and fellow Republican Assemblyman John G. Veneman of San Francisco scraped together the $500 filing fee for state controller and entered Flournoy in the race. Flournoy learned of his candidacy the next day in the newspaper.
He won the office by beating incumbent Alan Cranston, who went on to become a long-serving U.S. senator.
When Flournoy decided to seek the Republican nomination for governor in 1973, he was not well-known across the state and was seen as the most unlikely of six contenders to win his party’s favor. Moreover, he was not a member of Reagan’s inner circle.
His stiffest competition was Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke, Reagan’s handpicked successor. But gradually, his rivals, including former Lt. Gov. Robert Finch and Atty. Gen. Evelle Younger, dropped out of the race. Flournoy found himself the winner of the Republican primary after Reinecke was charged with lying in connection with a federal investigation of an offer by International Telephone & Telegraph Co. to help underwrite the 1972 Republican convention.
Described in a 1974 Times profile as having all the charisma of a banker, Flournoy was not the type of candidate who connected emotionally with voters. He was outpolled by Brown, former Gov. Pat Brown’s son and a one-time Jesuit seminarian, who repeatedly linked Flournoy to Reagan and Nixon. He countered with a television spot in which he told viewers: “My name is Houston Flournoy. Houston Flournoy. I repeat my name because Jerry Brown seems to be running against Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.”
Watergate was another major hindrance. It deprived Flournoy’s campaign of news coverage (the House Judiciary Committee hearings into impeachment were dominating the airwaves and front pages). It also made matters more complicated for the Republican underdog, who feared alienating the GOP bedrock if he criticized Nixon and committing political suicide if he defended him.
When Ford pardoned Nixon right after Labor Day, it stirred new resentment of Republicans and “threw a big political monkey wrench into the Flournoy campaign,” Bagley recalled. Flournoy’s fate seemed certain, despite a late surge in the polls that narrowed the gap between him and Brown to the relatively close margin of 177,000 votes out of 6 million cast.
He accepted his loss gracefully and returned to academia, accepting a faculty position at USC. He was a professor of public administration for two decades, teaching at the main USC campus in Los Angeles and at its graduate program in Sacramento. He recently contributed $500,000 to USC’s State Capital Center to help create an endowed professorship in state government, Jean Korinke said.
Flournoy, who had homes in Bodega Bay, Calif., and Florida, is survived by another daughter, Ann Day of Carmel; a son, David of Livermore, Calif.; and two grandchildren.