George Deukmejian, the tight-fisted, tough-on-crime governor who had a calming influence on California politics in the 1980s, died Tuesday at his home in Long Beach, his family announced. He was 89.
Deukmejian was remembered by fellow Republicans and by Democrats for blending traditional conservative positions on fiscal and social issues with stands like his advocacy for the state divesting from South Africa during apartheid.
“He represents the kind of politicians that California used to produce but doesn’t anymore: decent, moderate conservatives,” said Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
Gov. Jerry Brown, whom Deukmejian followed in the office after defeating Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the 1982 election, hailed the two-term governor as someone who “made friends across the political aisle.”
Brown said flags at the state capitol would be flown at half-staff in Deukmejian’s memory.
Candidates for Deukmejian’s old job offered praise for the Menands, New York, native who represented the Long Beach area in the California Assembly and Senate before being elected state attorney general during a 28-year run in public office that started in 1963.
“He not only was a leader of principle, civility and strength. He was a powerful example for California’s vibrant Armenian-American community,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic front-runner for governor.
Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic former Los Angeles mayor who’s running for governor, noted that the child of parents who fled the Armenian genocide “would go on to enact efforts to oppose apartheid in South Africa and stand against oppression.”
John Cox, a Republican running for governor, called Deukmejian “a great Republican, public servant and governor for all Californians.”
A graduate of Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., who earned his law degree from St. John’s University in New York City, Deukmejian moved to California and entered private practice. Here he met his wife, Gloria Saatjian. They had three children.
His law-and-order reputation followed him from the state Legislature to the attorney general’s office and the governor’s chair.
Deukmejian led a legislative drive in 1977 to legalize the death penalty in California, overturning a veto by Jerry Brown, then in his first stint as governor. As attorney general from 1979 to 1983, he was known in part for his opposition to marijuana, including a publicity-grabbing moment when he and armed state agents helicoptered into a Mendocino County pot grow. As governor, he presided over the largest expansion of the state prison system.
But he earned his nickname — The Iron Duke — with his opposition to new taxes and spending on projects large and small. In 1983, soon after he replaced Brown, Deukmejian whacked state spending on bicycle projects from $5 million a year to the lowest amount he could legally get away with, $360,000, pleasing his fiscally conservative supporters. Deukmejian would later boast of using his veto powers more than 4,000 times on bills by the Democratic Party-controlled Legislature.
Having eliminated the $1.5 billion budget deficit he inherited from Brown, Deukmejian said in a State of the State address that he had “taken California from IOU to A-OK.”
An economic downturn, though, would produce an even larger deficit by the time Deukmejian turned the governor’s office over to fellow Republican Pete Wilson in 1991.
He held traditional conservative views on many social issues. Deukmejian vetoed a bill that would have made California the first state in the country to outlaw discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation.
His popularity in Republican circles was such that national GOP officials reached out to him in 1988 to gauge his interest in being George H.W. Bush’s vice presidential running mate. Deukmejian said he turned down the opportunity because he would have had to turn over the state to Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, a Democrat.
Reserved and modest, Deukmejian called it “embarrassing” in 2013 when Long Beach christened its newest building the Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse.
On his way out of Sacramento and back to Long Beach in 1991, he joked that “I think they’re going to miss this wild and crazy guy.”
Tuesday, he was indeed missed.
Pitney, the political-science professor, said Deukemejian didn’t have major initiatives like other memorable governors — but that was never his goal.
“He kept the state on a sustainable path [fiscally],” Pitney said. “People remember him as somebody who was good at maintenance, just keeping the government running efficiently. And there’s something to be said for that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.