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Allan Zaremberg, dean of state business community, remembered as advocate for California

A man speaks at a podium
Allan Zaremberg, president and chief executive officer of the California Chamber of Commerce, at a Capitol news conference in Sacramento in 2011.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
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As the leader of the California Chamber of Commerce, Allan Zaremberg was the dean of the state’s business community and guided the policies that affected one of the largest economies in the world for more than two decades.

In Sacramento, Zaremberg, who died Saturday at age 74, is remembered as an advocate not only for companies, but for the good of California. Known for building diverse coalitions of like-minded business interests, he often crossed party lines to reach solutions through compromise.

“I think as far as biggest impact, when you have so much partisan politics and people that get really, very uptight about their issues, Allan was one of those people that just did not allow it to happen,” said Robbie Hunter, the retired leader of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. “He tried to keep the discussion at a level where he had respect for others’ opinions, and brought kindness to a lot of the conversation. And that you don’t really get a lot of in the tug of war at the Capitol.”

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In an interview shortly before he retired from the chamber in 2021, Zaremberg said working for former Gov. George Deukmejian formed the foundation of his philosophy at the state Capitol.

He described Deukmejian, whom he worked for during his time as attorney general and then as governor, as a compassionate conservative and a strong protector of elderly, blind and disabled people at a time when conservatives wanted to cut government spending.

“You have to be able to help the people who can’t help themselves, but that means opportunities,” Zaremberg said.

Zaremberg was raised in a low-income family in the steel mining town of Beaver Falls, Penn., where he lived above a small grocery store that his father took over after his grandfather died. His mother worked in a men’s clothing store.

His father lost the business when an A&P grocery store opened a block and a half away and died when Zaremberg was 17, he said.

His mother preached the importance of doing well in school. “There was never any, how I put this, alternatives,” said Zaremberg, who received a bachelor’s in economics from Penn State University and a law degree from McGeorge School of Law.

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Facing the likelihood of being drafted, Zaremberg joined the Air Force in 1970 in his early 20s. He went to officer school and became a captain and flight navigator, refueling spy planes in a KC-135 jet air tanker in Vietnam.

“When I look back, my life was defined a lot by the Air Force and what I did,” he said, adding that it shaped how he perceived and responded to crisis.

Zaremberg described a mission to refuel a spy plane over South Vietnam when the plane lost an engine in North Vietnam.

“And you have to make sure that you get them out of North Vietnam before you get shot down by a surface to air missile,” Zaremberg said.

“When you have crisis, you learn how to manage it,” he said. “And if somebody’s life or airplanes hang in the balance, you do your job and you get it done and that’s what you do. Standing up in front of a group of people, which might have been hard at one time, suddenly became a lot easier.”

Zaremberg’s retirement from the chamber was emblematic of a changing of the guard at the highest levels of California’s most powerful political institutions. Art Pulaski, the longtime leader of the California Labor Federation, and Hunter stepped down from their posts around the same time.

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Zaremberg commended Hunter at the time for believing “the success of his workers is dependent on the success of the economy.” The union leader said Zaremberg understood that “workers needed to do well to drive the economy.”

“We had a lot of things in common, not that we were always on the same page, but he was a genuine person that did care about working people,” Hunter said.

Despite his understated and low-key style, Cassandra Pye said Zaremberg earned the trust of the leaders of major companies headquartered in California when she served as his political director in the 1990s and early 2000s. Zaremberg was the chamber’s executive vice president and head of legislative advocacy for six years before becoming CEO.

Under Zaremberg, the chamber remained influential in California even as many companies moved elsewhere and political headwinds began to shift against Republicans.

The chamber’s “Job Killers,” a list of legislation the organization argues will deter job growth and hurt businesses in California, became a highly effective tactic to halt measures that would increase costs for employers.

In an example of his balance, the chamber also joined Hunter’s union and then-Gov. Jerry Brown to push a gas tax to fund infrastructure projects through the Democratic Legislature despite fierce opposition from oil companies and Republicans.

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Asked before his retirement whether he would endorse the legislation again if he got a do-over, he stood by the chamber’s decision. “There are days when I’m riding on the roads and I wonder what the hell they’re doing with the money,” he joked.

The chamber remained relevant, in part, because of how Zaremberg helped it evolve to support the campaigns of pro-business Democrats. His leadership style remains a model for the chamber.

“He got frustrated with Republicans and with Democrats but he was groomed to bring all the parties to the table. He never broke that mold,” Pye said. “He didn’t know another way.”

Pye called Zaremberg a friend, confidant and “scary smart” boss who championed her career and that of many other women.

Zaremberg allowed her to work from home during the summers to raise her sons, who still associate him with the pizzas he made from scratch for friends at his home in Loomis. She called him a food snob, who always wanted to share plates at restaurants.

When she launched her own communications firm, he became one of her first clients.

“He made the strategist I am today by asking me to prove my case with facts, by asking the right questions, considering all the potential outcomes and, most importantly, doing the right thing,” she said. “I knew what was coming when he would say, ‘OK, let’s step back here…’”

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Lobbyist and consultant Kevin Sloat said he and Zaremberg were good friends for nearly 35 years and each other’s sounding board.

“Allan would say, ‘It’s good to have somebody to kick it around with,’” Sloat said, adding that Zaremberg offered his advice to countless others.

Zaremberg was a huge fan of producer and actor Larry David, the kind of golfer who arrived a few minutes before the tee time and a guy who drove a stick shift as long as his health would allow, said Sloat, who worked with him in Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration.

Sloat agreed with others who said that Zaremberg negotiated in good faith with the goal of reaching a compromise, but wasn’t afraid to launch ballot measure fights. Even when those battles became expensive and contentious, he didn’t hold any animus.

“I mean, Allan would be the first one to tell me in my fights not to take them so personal and not be so personal about it,” Sloat said.

Ana Matosantos, a Democrat and advisor to Govs. Gavin Newsom, Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, considered Zaremberg a mentor. She got to know him through conversations about raising taxes to balance the budget, which she noted were unusual for a representative of the business community to engage in and help craft.

An advocate of good government and civic participation and education, Zaremberg was nonpartisan and pragmatic, she said. Early in her career, he never made her feel a need to justify her place in high-powered negotiations, contrary to other men of his experience and generation, nor did he go over her head to her bosses.

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Matosantos said he mentored and was generous with his time because he wanted to mold more people at the Capitol “to figure out how to solve problems and figure out how to work for the common good and reflect the perspective that when democracy is healthier, when the economy is healthier, when more people have more opportunity, everyone does better.”

Newsom described Zaremberg as a passionate voice for California’s business community who helped strengthen, innovate and grow the economy.

“A fair and decent man to his core, Allan always strived to build relationships and trust across the board, an increasingly rare feat,” Newsom said in a statement.

Zaremberg said he kept a framed picture in his office in downtown Sacramento of himself as a child and other neighborhood kids behind his family’s store “to make sure I remember where I came from.”

Zaremberg is survived by his wife, Karen; their son, Adam; a grandson; and his sister Darlene.

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