California’s Republican elite – yes, Virginia, there was once such a thing – gathered in the Capitol on Dec. 15, 1980, to cast the state’s 45 presidential electoral votes for Ronald Reagan.
After the formalities, attendees lingered in the state Senate chambers, savoring the moment and believing that Reagan’s election was a harbinger of their party’s rising fortunes in a state that seemed to be, at the time, up for political grabs.
Mike Curb, a former recording executive, drew the most attention from political insiders and reporters. He had been elected lieutenant governor just two years earlier, having defeated a Democratic incumbent, and was considered the leading GOP candidate for governor in 1982.
Curb enjoyed the implicit blessing of what were called the “kingmakers” – a group of wealthy Southern California businessmen who had shepherded Reagan’s transformation from B-movie actor to winning politician.
George Deukmejian, a former legislator who had been elected attorney general two years earlier as well, stood a few feet from the Curb entourage, chatting with me and one or two other reporters.
Offhandedly, without prompting, Deukmejian mentioned that he was setting up an “exploratory committee” for governor. It was classic Deukmejian – no flashy, contrived media event, just a quiet declaration.
I was a bit shocked, because exactly five months earlier, we had walked together from the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, site of the GOP national convention that had nominated Reagan, to the California delegation’s hotel a few blocks away, and I had asked him, off the record, about the governorship.
Deukmejian acknowledged, as I already knew, that Republican figures who resented the kingmakers had urged him to run. But, he told me, he was happy to be attorney general and lead a crackdown on crime, and wasn’t inclined to give it up for what would be an uphill run for the governorship.
As became evident later, the anti-kingmaker faction wouldn’t take no for an answer and, with pledges of support from law enforcement leaders and wealthy Armenian-Americans, finally persuaded Deukmejian to take the plunge.
The rest is, as they say, history.
Deukmejian not only outpolled Curb in the 1982 Republican primary but defeated the Democratic candidate, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, by one of the narrowest margins in state history. Bradley actually won among in-person voters, and was proclaimed the winner by media on election night, but a surge of mailed ballots pushed Deukmejian over the top, and he defeated Bradley again in a 1986 rematch.
Deukmejian came into the governorship with modest goals – fight crime with tougher sentencing laws and new prisons and erase the budget deficit he inherited from his Democratic predecessor, Jerry Brown. And he did both, although he also bequeathed a deficit to his successor, Republican Pete Wilson, eight years later.
Being governor didn’t change Deukmejian. Unlike most high-level politicians, he was somebody you’d like to have as a next-door neighbor – honest and friendly, with a quiet sense of self-deprecating humor. He and his family lived on what was then a very modest governor’s salary and legend has it that he spent one vacation cleaning out his garage in Long Beach.
One could criticize Deukmejian for not grasping the immense economic, demographic and cultural change that swept through California during the 1980s, including very high rates of immigration-driven population growth. But he was not alone. A scandal-ridden Legislature controlled by Democrats was equally oblivious.
Deukmejian, who quietly practiced law in Southern California after leaving the governorship in 1991, died last week at age 89.
Sometimes nice guys do finish first.