In the eight years he governed California, George Deukmejian was renowned for inflexibility. It was unfair then, but by today’s standards he appears to be a supreme moderate.
The low-key Republican, who died at 89 Tuesday, campaigned on the law-and-order credo that was his party’s hallmark. He was “the Iron Duke,” and “Governor No,” so-called for his hard line in the 1980s on crime and public spending.
As George Deukmejian was remembered this week, it was for the times he let decency trump dogma, and for the occasions when, as Jerry Brown put it, ‘he made friends across the political aisle.’
Especially spending. Inheriting a deficit of $1.5 billion, he vetoed every sixth bill brought to his desk. During the later years of his term, he could brag that he had taken California “from IOU to A-OK.” A recession starting in 1989 made brought back the deficits, despite his incredibly tight budgets.
Deukmejian backed an initiative to recall liberal Chief Justice Rose Bird of the state Supreme Court and got two other justices thrown out with her. He stacked the bench with pro-death-penalty judges and expanded the prisons and, while in the Assembly, he helped write a 1977 law reinstating the death penalty.
By the time he stepped down in 1990, the number of felons behind bars had tripled to some 97,000, and school advocates were so frustrated they had passed a voter initiative reserving most of the state general fund for education. Yet, those stern accomplishments, so controversial in his era, are the least of his legacy.
Instead, this week, as his passing interrupted a crowd campaigning to do what he once did – succeed Jerry Brown in the governor’s office – the most talked-about aspect of Deukmejian’s tenure was how open-minded and bipartisan it was in its most successful moments.
For people in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, there was another part of Deukmejian’s legacy that has gotten little attention over the years. He was an ardent promoter of creating a ninth University of California campus and putting it in the San Joaquin Valley. Merced wasn’t chosen for the university until 1995, but it was Deukmejian who took the first steps.
In an era when dogmatic adherence to doctrine was not required of politicians, the conservative Deukmejian insisted that the University of California divest its massive retirement fund from South Africa – perhaps recalling that his parents were forced to flee the Armenian genocide.
His soul searching after a 1989 mass shooting in a Stockton schoolyard led him to buck the National Rifle Association and paved the way for California’s landmark ban on military-style assault weapons.
His decision in his second term to rethink his fiscal hawkishness and negotiate with a Democratic-controlled Legislature led to an $18.5 billion, 10-year initiative on transportation – funded with a 9-cent increase in the state gasoline tax.
Apartheid ended. The weapons ban lasted. The roads endured (as did the gas tax). As Deukmejian was remembered this week, it was for the times he chose decency over dogma, and for the occasions when, as Brown put it, “he made friends across the political aisle.”
Times change. Bipartisanship is punished now, particularly in Deukmejian’s party.
But when he was elected, Deukmejian was a Republican’s Republican just as Brown was a Democrat’s Democrat. Their real work was always in the middle, where rigid rules meet human needs, and fiscal hawks meet potholes.
The great ones know it’s all about how you bend, not how the other guy breaks.