Gov. George Deukmejian in office

Former California Governor Deukmejian Dies; Leaves Legacy of Fiscal Conservatism and Bipartisanship

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LOS ANGELES — Former Governor of California George Deukmejian died on May 8. He was 89.

George Deukmejian, a two-term California governor who was admired by Republicans and Democrats alike for his willingness to cross party boundaries, and who quietly shepherded the state through a period of rapid growth and sustained prosperity, died at his home in Long Beach, Calif.

His death was confirmed by Steve Merksamer, Deukmejian’s former chief of staff.

From left, George and Gloria Deukmejian with then-President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy

As governor, Deukmejian appointed more than 1,000 judges, many of whom are still serving in California’s courts.

In the 1982 race for governor, he defeated the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, by about 90,000 votes out of nearly eight million cast, a victory so narrow that some news reports prematurely pronounced Bradley the winner.

Deukmejian served two terms, from January 1983 to January 1991. In each of his eight state budgets, education was the state’s highest funding priority. In 1985, the California Legislature considered a bill introducing a human rights and genocide curriculum throughout the California public school system. Both the California State Senate and Assembly passed the bill in September of that year. Governor Deukmejian signed the bill into law on September 28, 1985, and the new curriculum was first printed in 1987.

Three California governors: From left, Gray Davis, George Deukmejian and Jerry Brown

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The Armenian Assembly’s 1987 tribute banquet in honor of George Deukmejian was joined by many political leaders from across the country. President (then-Vice President) George Bush, Sr., Senator Robert “Bob” Dole (R-KS), Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD), Rep. Robert Dornan (R-CA), Rep. Chip Pashayan (R-CA), Massachusetts Speaker of the House George Keverian, New Jersey Assembly Majority Leader Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian, former California Assembly Majority Leader Walter Karabian, American diplomat Barry Zorthian, and presidential speechwriter Ken Khachigian, among other esteemed guests, were all in attendance. President Ronald Reagan and Governor Michael Dukakis offered special video messages of praise to Governor Deukmejian.

President Reagan noted: “The Armenian Assembly has made the right choice. This tribute is truly well deserved. George has served his community, state, and nation with great distinction.”

Reagan continued: “Duke, you’ve also made it clear how very much your Armenian heritage means to you. As we know, many Armenian-Americans immigrated to our land under very difficult circumstances, and often with little or no money. Yet few Americans have so exemplified the essence of the American dream. With hard work they have built a new life to be proud of, they accomplished great things, and never lost sight of their fundamental values. George Deukmejian is just this sort of man. He is strong in character and long in caring. These are just some of the reasons you’re being saluted Duke.”

At the Gala, Vice President Bush spoke highly of Governor Deukmejian. “Barbara joins me in extending warm best wishes to all of those gathered for the Armenian Assembly of America tribute banquet in honor of Governor George Deukmejian.”

The following year, the Assembly honored Governor Deukmejian in Beverly Hills. In a congratulatory note, Bob Hope stated: “He’s one of my favorite Californians and I think he’s done a fine job as Governor.”

In his honor, the Assembly created the “Deukmejian Award for Public Service,” which is granted to individuals who embody the qualities of an exemplary public servant. Past recipients include: Kenneth L. Khachigian in 2017; Charles “Chuck” Poochigian and Deborah A. Poochigian in 2012; former Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) in 2006; former Canadian Parliamentarian Sarkis Assadourian in 2005; Congressional Caucus of Armenian Issues Co-Chairs Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and former Co-Chair Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) in 2004; Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) in 2003; Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues Co-Chair Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) and former Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY) in 2001;  former Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian in 1998; and former Armenian Minister of Trade and Industry Garnik Nanagoulian.

George Deukmejian served from 1979 to 1983 as California State Attorney General. Prior to that, he served in the California State Assembly from 1962 to 1967 and in the State Senate for twelve years from 1967 to 1979, where he represented Long Beach and surrounding Southern California communities.

 

California Gov. George Deukmejian (2nd left) honored for his 25 years of public service by the Armenian Assembly of America at testimonial banquet, Boston Copley Plaza on October 10, 1987, poses with guest speakers prior to the banquet. LtR: Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, Governor’s wife Gloria chats with Barbara Bush, wife of Vice President George Bush who enjoys a laugh with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. (UPI Photo/Fred Clow/Files)

He was the recipient of nine honorary degrees and was Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Politics of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He was a Regent Emeritus of the University of California, and a former member of the Board of Trustees of California State University. During its 2013 dedication of the new Long Beach courthouse in the County of Los Angeles, it was officially named the “Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse.”

In a 2005 memoir, David Gardner, who was president of California’s university system in the 1980s, wrote of the governor’s stand on apartheid in South Africa, “All of this killing and violence, directed mostly against blacks, reminded Deukmejian of the Turkish massacres of Armenians in World War I.”

Recalling the episode in 2012, Deukmejian said, “My feeling was, there but for the grace of God go I.”

Gardner had strongly opposed divestment, but at the governor’s urging, the state pulled some $3 billion in stock holdings out of South Africa. During a visit to California after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela said the action by the University of California — the first large public institution to take a stand — played a critical role in ending white minority rule in South Africa.

A staunch fiscal conservative, Deukmejian was a consistent opponent of new taxes and government spending increases, to the point where his Republican colleagues in the legislature nicknamed him “The Iron Duke” for repeated vows to veto spending bills.

Courken George Deukmejian Jr. was born on June 6, 1928, in Menands, N.Y., north of Albany. His parents had emigrated from eastern Turkey in the early 1900s. His father worked in a series of jobs — as a photographer, Oriental rug dealer and paper wholesaler. His mother worked in a necktie factory.

Deukmejian attended Siena College in Albany County, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor of arts in sociology. He received a law degree in 1952 from St. John’s University School of Law in Queens.

Deukmejian was known to be especially tough on crime. While governor, he presided over the building of more than a dozen prisons.

After leaving office in 1991, he became a partner in the Los Angeles office of Sidley & Austin, commuting from his house in Long Beach, which he and his wife had lived in since 1960.

He is survived by his wife, Gloria; their children, Leslie, George and Andrea; and six grandchildren.

One of the signal moments in Deukmejian’s governorship came in 1989, after a gunman killed five elementary school children in Stockton, Calif., using an AK-47. Bucking his party, Deukmejian supported a Democratic-sponsored bill outlawing semiautomatic rifles, one of the first such bans in the nation.

Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco, who was speaker of the State Assembly when Deukmejian was in office, said of the governor’s support for the ban, “It was the right thing to do, not the politically right thing to do.”

“Deukmejian was a registered Republican, but he elevated the level of governorship above his party choice,” Brown said in an interview for this obituary. “I think his time in office will be seen as the last the State of California actually had a bipartisan, working relationship between the governor’s office and the legislature.”

Considered a politician of great integrity, he was respected on both sides of the aisle and credited for his ability to work with members of both parties to enact legislation of great consequence to the state in the areas of transportation, law and order, gun control and public safety to name but a few. Many have said that the Armenian genocide informed his lifelong quest for justice and anti-violence.

“Today, another son of the Armenian nation joins the ranks of other extraordinary Armenian American public figures, including Kirk Kerkorian and our own former AGBU president Alex Manoogian. They have left an indelible legacy of hope and inspiration to those seeking to balance worldly success with giving back to their fellow Armenians,” stated AGBU President Berge Setrakian on behalf of the worldwide organization. “George Deukmejian was a shining example of effective leadership to both his country and the community that shaped his character and world view.”

(The New York Times contributed to this report.)

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