Capitol Alert

Kirk West, longtime business advocate in the California Capitol, dies at 79

Kirk West, as president of the state Chamber of Commerce, discusses warning signs mandated by proposition 65, a 1986 ballot measure that required warnings if cancer-causing materials were present.
Kirk West, as president of the state Chamber of Commerce, discusses warning signs mandated by proposition 65, a 1986 ballot measure that required warnings if cancer-causing materials were present. The Sacramento Bee

Kirk West, a towering and affable fixture of Capitol politics for more than a half-century, died Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 79.

West’s career in politics included stints in several private and public positions, including chief executive of both the California Taxpayers Association and the California Chamber of Commerce.

“Kirk was a special person,” Allen Zaremberg, West’s successor at the helm of the chamber, said in a statement announcing West’s death. “He shows us all that being gracious, humble and respectful is the perfect recipe for success.”

Zaremberg had served in the administration of former Gov. George Deukmejian with West before joining him at the chamber. Soon thereafter, Zaremberg said, “I found that we were right in the middle of a dispute between Gov. Pete Wilson and Speaker Willie Brown. I sought Kirk’s sage counsel and direction. After several minutes of deep thought, he wheeled around in his chair and announced, ‘That’s why I hired you.’ 

Among West’s accomplishments at CalChamber before his retirement in 1997 was the creation of its “job killer” list that has framed the annual battle between business groups and liberal foes, including unions, environmentalists and consumer activists.

Only a handful of each year’s “job killer” bills, and sometimes none, customarily survive.

In his roles with Cal-Tax, from 1974 to 1982, and CalChamber, from 1986 to 1997, and later as a private citizen, West often signed official ballot pamphlet arguments for and against pending measures – probably more times than anyone else in state history.

West was born to missionary parents in China and later quipped, “I was the largest baby born in Shandong province in 1937.” He later grew to well over 6 feet tall, towering over almost everyone with whom he dealt in the Capitol. And when he traveled back to China in the 1980s on a trade mission with Deukmejian, as secretary of business and transportation, he had a reunion with his childhood nanny.

After graduating from Stanford University in 1958 and earning a master’s degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, West came to Sacramento as a legislative staffer. He later joined Gov. Ronald Reagan’s budget staff and became chief deputy to Controller Houston Flournoy before joining Cal-Tax.

West also served for three years as a San Juan Unified School District trustee and was a frequent guest lecturer on political and governmental issues at the University of California, Davis.

West’s survivors include his wife, Kathleen; children Sarah, Jennifer and David West, all of Sacramento; stepchildren Sharon Hilliard and Christine Sutherland; and many grandchildren. Services are pending.

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