Former California Gov. George Deukmejian, known as the "Iron Duke" for his tough-on-crime approach to governing, died Tuesday. He was 89.
His family said the former Republican governor passed away at his home in Long Beach of natural causes. They plan to hold a public memorial at a later date.
"He was a fine, decent man of integrity and character who was tremendously proud of his Armenian heritage," their statement said. "He loved his family and his friends and was forever grateful to the many loyal people who believed in him and served in his administrations. We miss him deeply."
When he turned his office over to Gov. Pete Wilson in January 1991 after two terms as governor, Deukmejian left a legacy as a frugal guardian of the public purse who did his best to put thousands of convicted felons behind bars.
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He prided himself on the use of his veto authority, saying he had used it to save California taxpayers more than $7 billion during his tenure. He insisted that that tax increases would serve only to slow a job-producing economy, clashing repeatedly with Democrats who warned that California would incur long-term costs for his refusal to acknowledge that the money produced by the existing tax structure might not be enough.
"They opposed us from the minute right after I got sworn into office," Deukmejian said as he prepared to leave office in 1990. "We were constantly confronted with that kind of strong, hostile opposition."
He wrote the state’s major death penalty law and said he ran for governor because he wanted the ability to appoint judges. One of his principal satisfactions was the appointment of a new state Supreme Court majority.
He campaigned with vigor against California Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird, a controversial figure appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in his first stint in the job. The court dominated by Brown appointees compiled a record of reversing death penalty cases, and voters in 1986 ousted Bird and two other justices.
Deukmejian elevated Malcolm Lucas, his former Long Beach law partner, to replace Bird.
"I might have fantasized that the Rose Bird court would go away some time, but I never imagined that it was going to happen the way it did," Deukmejian told The Sacramento Bee.
Wilson remembered him Tuesday as a quiet, unassuming man and "determined and effective" leader who was among those who first encouraged Wilson to run for office. They served together in the Legislature.
"He was determined that the first duty of government was to provide for the public's safety," Wilson said. "He felt there hadn't been adequate attention to the rights of victims. He was determined to change that and he did so – he changed the direction of the Supreme Court by 180 degrees. It was a critical change and one that was long overdue."
Born Courken George Deukmejian Jr. in Menands, New York, in 1928, his parents were Armenian immigrants whose families had fled to the United States two decades earlier during the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire.
He studied sociology at Siena College and then received his law degree from St. John's University in New York. After serving for three years in the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate Corps, based out of Paris, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for the Texaco Company and then as deputy counsel for the county.
He began a steady political rise in 1962, with his election to an open Assembly seat. After 16 years in the Legislature, where he authored more than 180 laws, including one that required prison time for the use of a gun during any crime, he won the office of attorney general in 1978.
Then, by the closest margin ever in a California gubernatorial race, Deukmejian was elected governor in 1982.
"He wasn't a media star like Jerry Brown," said Sacramento political consultant Sal Russo, who ran Deukmejian's first campaign for governor in 1982, when he narrowly defeated Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. "He was kind of dull."
"We put him in front of a black screen and had him talk directly into the camera, and I think that came through — the fact that he was a good and decent man," Russo said. "After eight years of Jerry Brown, people wanted stability."
Steve Merksamer, who served as chief of staff to Deukmejian during his stints as attorney general and governor, said Deukmejian was deeply influenced by his family's experience during the Armenian Genocide. The memory of those deaths drove his tough-on-crime policies.
"He believed government's essential function was to protect the public from harm," Merksamer said.
But he added that it also instilled a profound sense of morality in Deukmejian, who governed by what he believed was just and not what was popular.
Among Deukmejian's proudest accomplishments as governor, Merksamer said, were taking early action on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, when many viewed with contempt and disgust the disease that was mainly killing gay men; leading the fight in 1986 to divest California of doing business with South Africa's apartheid regime; and signing a 1989 assault weapons ban, the toughest in the country, after a school shooting in Stockton.
"George had very strong views, but he cared ultimately to do what was right," Merksamer said. "And even if what was right was hard or it was against the constituency that supported him, he would do what was right."
Deukmejian is survived by his wife of 61 years, Gloria; their children, Leslie, George and Andrea; and six grandchildren.
Amy Chance and Dan Smith of The Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.