By Maria Dinzeo, Courthouse News Service
George Deukmejian, a two-term Republican governor of California known for his fiscal conservatism, tough stance on crime and collaborative, bipartisan approach to politics, died Tuesday at his Long Beach home. He was 89.
“I will always remember Governor Deukmejian as a man of great personal integrity, who had the courage of his convictions, and a passion for the rule of law,” said California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who got her start in the courts as a Deukmejian appointee to the bench in Sacramento.
“He gave me a priceless opportunity to serve the people of California as his deputy legal affairs secretary and deputy legislative secretary, and ultimately set me on a path to my current role when he appointed me to the Sacramento Municipal Court. I learned many lessons from George and he will be remembered as a man whose service as governor will be recalled with reverence by persons of both parties.”
“George Deukmejian was an amazing man who earned the respect of a generation of Californians for his pragmatic leadership, fortitude and dedication to public service,” Los Angeles County Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement.
“Of his many admirable qualities, he was a champion for public safety, a source of pride for the Armenian-American community and a role model for youth inspired to enter government and politics,” Barger said.
The son of Armenian immigrants fleeing genocide in Turkey, Deukmejian was born in Menands, New York, in 1928.
“My father had a concession in a major department store,” Deukmejian recounted at a lecture he gave at USC in 2013. “Then the Great Depression hit. People didn’t have money to buy rugs. He struggled and my mother went to work in a factory making neckties. Many women went to work. It was hard work; she was on her feet all day.”
Of his childhood, he said in 1990: “I worked while going to school. We didn’t have a lot. I learned that you have to work for what you get, and you have to work hard. That’s been a major factor in how I’ve done things since then.”
Deukmejian moved to Los Angeles in 1955, after earning his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Siena College in 1949 and a law degree from St. John’s University in 1952. He was an attorney in private practice before being elected to the state Assembly in 1962. Deukmejian would later become a state senator and California attorney general.
After he was first elected governor 1983, Deukmejian set about steering California toward law and order, fiscal prudence and deregulation.
“I will appoint judges who are committed to public safety and the rights of victims,” he said in his inaugural State of the State address. “These will be judges who will not engage in justice by loopholes, but justice under the law as intended.”
Filling his promise to remake California’s judiciary, he appointed more than 1,000 to the bench during his two terms.
Deukmejian also changed the political tenor of the state’s high court, endorsing a voter-backed campaign to remove liberal justices Rose Bird, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso – all appointed by his predecessor, Jerry Brown – for being soft on crime. He replaced them with state appeals court judges John Arguellas, Marcus Kaufman and David Eagleson, all from Southern California. He also appointed Edward Panelli of Santa Clara and named his former law partner Malcolm Lucas as chief justice.
Having inherited a budget shortfall of $1.5 billion, he sought to bolster California’s economy by cutting spending and regulations he believed stymied innovation and growth.
“We cannot create prosperity by shackling those who are best able to create it,” he said in his 1983 State of the State speech. “That is why we have got to unburden the business and labor communities from the stringent and sometimes arbitrary regulations which have hamstrung progress. From now on, those regulations which do not serve an important public interest, are not authorized by law, or which result in costs which outweigh the public benefit will be eliminated.”
He also adopted a resolute anti-spending credo, and his consistent promises to veto spending bills earned him the nickname “The Iron Duke.”
Still, Deukmejian was respected by both Republicans and Democrats alike, including political foil Brown.
“George Deukmejian was a popular governor and made friends across the political aisle,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday.
Deukmejian is survived by his wife, Armenian-American Gloria Saatjian, whom he married in 1957, his three children Georgia, Andrea and Leslie, and six grandchildren.