From the Archives: Jesse Unruh, Key Political Figure in State, Dies at 64
Jesse Marvin Unruh, often regarded as the most powerful Assembly Speaker in California history and a prominent figure in state politics for more than 30 years, died Tuesday night at his home in Marina del Rey after a long battle against cancer.
He was 64, and had been diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the prostate in 1983.
Family spokesman Kenneth Berk said Unruh died quietly, surrounded by his family.
In addition to his wife, Chris, he leaves a daughter, Linda; four sons, Bruce, Bradley, Robert and Randall, and a grandson. Funeral arrangements are pending. Berk said the family requested that donations in lieu of flowers be sent to the American Cancer Society.
Unruh, who was elected state treasurer in 1974, was a man of many accomplishments.
He modernized the state Assembly, concentrating unprecedented authority in the Speaker’s office, fathering progressive legislation and playing a key role in national politics as chief supporter of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy in the most populous state in the union. But he never attained the post he most coveted: governor of California.
Although his intelligence and ability were widely recognized, many had doubts about some of the methods he used in wielding power, and Unruh, a man of gargantuan appetites who was once known as “Big Daddy,” contributed to the doubts by verbal and other excesses.
The son of an illiterate sharecropper, he was a self-made man who never lost his working-class edges, despite having become wealthy and influential.
As Unruh approached age 60 in 1982, more than a decade after he unsuccessfully ran for governor, friends approached him about making another bid for the job. “If I were going to run,” he replied, “I’d have to get married, stop drinking and be nice to reporters, and I don’t want to do any of those things.”
He had passed up an opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate in 1968 out of the mistaken belief that the incumbent Republican, Thomas H. Kuchel, was unbeatable. As it turned out, Kuchel lost in the primary to a right-wing educator, Max Rafferty, and Rafferty was defeated in the fall by Democrat Alan Cranston.
His 1970 bid to unseat then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had served one term, fell 501,057 votes short, even though Unruh ran better against Reagan than many political experts had expected.
Unruh also made a bid, in 1973, for the office of mayor of Los Angeles, running third behind Mayor-to-be Tom Bradley and then-Mayor Sam Yorty. At the age of 50, it seemed that his political career was over.
But the next year, alert to the opportunity afforded Democrats in the first post-Watergate election, he was elected state treasurer. Many thought the office a powerless one, yet in a short time Unruh converted it into an influential seat of control over the investment of billions of dollars of state funds, maintaining close relations with the legislative leaders and the two governors under whom he served.
Unruh, like some other leading California politicians of this century—Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, Richard M. Nixon, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Reagan—had a highly distinctive personality. In his case, it reflected a delight in the unbridled wielding of power.
At the height of the legislative phase of his career, weighing 290 pounds, he was the subject of a song sung at a party of the usually anti-Unruh liberal California Democratic Council. Based on Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” it was worded as if it had been written by one of the assemblymen under Unruh’s control:
“I used to be in CDC
I dined on a hamburger patty.
But I had no strain
In my last campaign,
Now my heart belongs to Daddy.
I used to fare
Like any square,
Integrity drove my friends batty.
But now I’m hip
With my chairmanship
And my heart belongs to Daddy.”
The song accurately reflected Unruh’s technique of winning political allegiance by contributing substantially to his colleagues’ campaigns, using money he had collected from lobbyists. Its implication that he did not run an honest ship drew the wrath of the Assembly Speaker. He regarded himself as an idealist, although one who was ready to use shrewd political tactics to make his ideals prevail.
At the outset of his legislative service, in 1955, Unruh had forsworn taking money from the lobbyists who frequently dominated the Assembly. But later, he wrote that he and a small group of confederates came to realize that the legislators who plied the straight and narrow often accomplished little and that it was hard to get elected and take political control without lobbyist money.
“So, stilling our doubts and scruples, we began to play the dangerous game of taking money from would-be corrupters—to elect men who would fight corruption,” he wrote.
Unruh calculated well politically. The friends he was able to elect with the money he got from the lobbyists eventually helped him become Speaker. As Speaker, and even before, he was able to secure passage of landmark legislation relating to civil rights, consumer protection, election reform and management of the state budget.
The same mixture of realism and idealism could be seen in his support of the Kennedys. It was clear that Unruh had an eye on a Cabinet position in any Kennedy Administration. At the same time, no one who knew him could doubt his personal devotion to the President and his brother.
On that night of horror in June, 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after he had won the California Democratic presidential primary, Unruh was there. Columnist Jimmy Breslin later described Unruh, determined to see the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, go to trial, “up on the table, screaming at the police: ‘I want him alive! I hold you responsible for him being alive! I want him alive!’ ”
Years later, Unruh remained emotional about the assassination. When he was told one afternoon that the state parole board was thinking about setting a release date for Sirhan, he vowed to intercede with then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. to prevent it. “I’m going to go over to see the governor right now,” he said.
Former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown remarked: “There was no one who worked harder for Jack (Kennedy) in the first instance. . . . And he became very close to Bobby (Kennedy). Had Bobby won in 1968, Jess would have played a very important part in that presidential office.”
Unruh was usually directly involved in big situations, often very emotionally. Sometimes, it was to his political detriment. One of his most notorious acts as Speaker occurred July 30 and 31, 1963, when he locked up the Republican members of the Assembly in the legislative chamber for 22 hours and 50 minutes because they were refusing to provide the votes necessary to approve the state budget.
Although Unruh insisted that the Republicans were “technically guilty of a felony” for demanding to know the details of a pending school finance measure before voting on the budget, he finally backed down, disclosing its terms. He later admitted to Lou Cannon, author of the book “Ronnie and Jesse” about Reagan and Unruh, “I sort of lost my judgment on the thing,” regarding the lockup.
The lockup fortified the view of Unruh critics who thought he was a would-be dictator. The Sacramento Bee charged that it was “a glaring abuse of power,” and the San Francisco Chronicle declared that Unruh “stands revealed for what he is--a crude political adventurer out to gain totalitarian control of the Assembly.”
Unruh confessed later to his deputy and friend, Grover McKean, that he believed that even his sense of humor had sometimes hurt him politically. He once told McKean about showing visitors through the Assembly chamber. When they would ask where his desk was, Unruh said he used to tell them, “They’re all mine.”
Sometimes, it seemed he was just too out front about what he was doing. When suggestions arose in his years as treasurer that there was a link between Unruh’s award of lucrative state bond sales or state deposits to various companies and the campaign contributions and lavish entertainment the companies had provided him, Unruh told The Times:
“We’d like everybody to contribute to us, and we certainly solicit everybody, right across the board, everybody—any legitimate business in the state of California . . . (whether) we do business with them, (whether) we don’t do business with them, whether we do a lot of business with them, whether we do a small amount of business with them. We try our best to get campaign contributions out of them.”
He acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal, “Probably as long as all things are equal, and all firms are equally capable, we do tend to go with them if they are friends.”
One investment banker, interviewed by The Times on condition of anonymity, remarked:
“All of it is right up front. There’s no ‘please send it to this guy who comes around the back door.’ I have never seen anyone as overt as he is, and I don’t respect his candor on this. He seems to do openly what no one else does.”
Unruh expressed outrage that anyone was paying attention to the matter, rather than to the record amounts—as high as $1.3 billion a year—that he was gaining for California taxpayers in coordinating the state’s short-term investments. He also pointed out that even before he became Speaker in 1961, he had taken a stand for public financing of elections, which would have negated the need for collecting campaign contributions.
‘Big Daddy’ Picture
As he had done at several other points in his public life, he vented his spleen at the press, saying he would never again talk to the reporters involved in the articles.
It was the press, or more specifically a press photograph, however, that was often credited with inducing Unruh to make a personal move of great positive consequence during his speakership: He went on a diet shortly after Life magazine ran a huge “Big Daddy” picture of him at his 290-pound zenith.
Unruh’s weight reduction campaign was as drastic and dramatic as any political campaign he ever waged. He lost 90 pounds in four months, recalling to Cannon later, “I never ate more than a steak and a salad, or a hamburger and a salad, or meat and a salad without dressing, once a day. For the first month, I think I ate that once every other day. I would go two days on one meal.”
It was a triumph of willpower, and although his weight went up and down after that, Unruh never tipped the scales at anything near 290 again.
He was never a handsome man. He once said, “I’m not the most attractive looking guy in the world—which seems to matter nowadays.” But he was a compelling one. He never lacked for friends and, when he wanted it, female companionship.
Jesse Unruh was born in Newton, Kan., on Sept. 30, 1922, the last of five children of Isaac and Nettie Unruh. His parents, German Mennonites whose parents and grandparents had migrated to escape religious persecution, moved to Texas when he was 7.
Life was difficult. Years later, during the period of student revolt in the 1960s, Unruh, expressing his aversion to “flower children,” remarked that to him going barefoot was “a badge of shame.” Often, in his family, he recalled, there was only one pair of shoes.
When Unruh graduated from high school in June, 1939, he received a scholarship for having the best scholastic record of any male student in the graduating class in Swenson, Tex.
His education was interrupted by World War II. He served in the Navy and was stationed for a considerable time in the Aleutians. While waiting to be sent there, Unruh met and married Virginia June Lemon, daughter of a Los Angeles police officer who was visiting in Corpus Christi, Tex.
The Unruhs separated after he ran for mayor, and they later divorced. In 1986, Unruh married Chris Edwards, a longtime companion.
After the war, Unruh enrolled at USC, where he got his political start in student affairs. He was well to the political left, saying later that he had come close at one time to joining the Communist Party while on campus. “The Communists rushed me like they were Sigma Chi and I was a future all-American,” he said.
Unruh was elected president of the school’s veterans organization and broke with the far left in 1948, choosing Helen Gahagan Douglas and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party over Henry Wallace and the progressives.
Unruh ran for the state Assembly in 1948 but placed third in the Democratic primary. In a second bid in 1952, he ran second, under California’s old cross-filing system, to the Republican incumbent, John J. Evans, in the Democratic primary. On his third try, in 1954, he won the Democratic nomination and narrowly defeated Evans in the general election in his Inglewood and southwest Los Angeles district. He had a campaign chest in that contest of $2,495.
Once in the Legislature, Unruh made shrewd alliances and rose steadily. By 1957, he was chairman of the Finance and Insurance Committee and in 1959 was appointed head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He was elected Assembly Speaker on his 39th birthday, Sept. 30, 1961, after then-Gov. Pat Brown agreed, to smooth the way, to name Speaker Ralph Brown to an appellate judgeship.
By then, Unruh was known nationally as President Kennedy’s man in California, and he had secured the allegiance of numerous legislators whom he had helped in election campaigns.
But his relations with Brown were already difficult. Brown said later of Unruh: “He’s one of the most intelligent men I know, but I never could get him to cooperate with me in the slightest degree. Once he became Speaker, he refused to be part of the team. Many of my own best programs, and those of able younger legislators, ended up with Unruh’s name on them, the Unruh version getting all the credit.”
Unruh did get popular credit for major pieces of legislation, many of which still affect the lives of millions of Californians:
- The Unruh Credit Act regulated the amount of interest that could be assessed for installment purchases, required full disclosure of charges and mandated sufficient notice to buyers of any transfer of contracts.
- The Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination against any individual for reasons of race, color or creed in any business that offered accommodations or services to the general public.
- The Collier-Unruh Act authorized property tax diversions to build rapid transit systems.
- An Unruh-authored bill on age discrimination prohibited the denial of jobs to people aged 40 to 65 on the exclusive ground of age.
- An Unruh-sponsored change in the social welfare law eliminated provisions requiring county welfare officers to obtain contributions from children in order to give their aged or impoverished parents public assistance.
- Other Unruh-authored bills vastly increased state funding for education and recreation, settled a tidelands oil controversy, banned bugging devices in classrooms and created the California Commission on the Arts.
The popularity of that legislation caused Brown to say later that Unruh was “substantially responsible for my reelection in 1962, when Nixon ran against me.” But out of that campaign came a bitter dispute. Unruh insisted that Brown had committed himself then to standing aside in 1966 and letting Unruh run for governor. Brown denied it and ran for a third term in 1966 and was overwhelmingly defeated by Reagan. Unruh did not get his chance to run until 1970.
Years later, in an interview in the fall of 1986, Brown said he thought Unruh “would have been a great governor. . . . There isn’t anybody I knew in my years in public life who knew more about government than Jesse Unruh. His commitment to the people of California was not only ambition. It was the desire of the poor boy to improve the life of the average person.”
His friend McKean asserted: “Unruh was the only effective liberal in Sacramento, even though the liberals hated him.” He said he had found that Unruh had “an affinity for those suffering discrimination . . . a capacity for feeling the pain of other people.”
Whether Unruh, whose successor will be named by Gov. George Deukmejian subject to approval by the Legislature, would ever have been electable as governor or U.S. senator is debatable. The polls indicated that the electorate had many reservations about him. Yet his name recognition was exceedingly high and he never had any trouble winning election to the treasurer’s office. The last of four times he was elected to it, he had no Republican opposition.
Occasionally, in his later years, he mused over the possibilities of ending his career with a bigger office. Unruh was a great admirer of Winston Churchill. He would point out that Churchill had, in his 60s, become associated with a great cause, victory over Nazism, and had emerged from the political wilderness to be named prime minister.
If only some great cause would come along for him, Unruh would say.
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