California Forum

On the legacy of George Deukmejian and what governance used to mean

In the eight years he governed California, George Deukmejian was renowned for inflexibility.

The low-key Republican, who died at 89 on Tuesday, campaigned on the law-and-order credo that was his party’s hallmark. He was “the Iron Duke,” and “Governor No,” so-called for his hard line in the 1980s on crime and public spending. Health, welfare, schools – in the eight years he led the state, every sixth bill brought to his desk was vetoed.

He backed an initiative to recall liberal Chief Justice Rose Bird of the state Supreme Court and got two other justices thrown out with her. He stacked the bench with pro-death-penalty judges and expanded the prisons.

By the time he stepped down in 1990, the number of felons behind bars had tripled to some 97,000, and school advocates were so frustrated they had passed a voter initiative reserving most of the state general fund for education.

And yet, those stern accomplishments, so controversial in his era, are the least of his legacy.

Instead, this week, as his passing interrupted a crowd campaigning to do what he once did – succeed Jerry Brown in the governor’s office – the most talked-about aspect of Deukmejian’s tenure was how open-minded and bipartisan it was in its most successful moments.

Belt-tightening alone scarcely dented the Proposition 13 deficit inherited after the 1990 recession by his Republican successor, Pete Wilson, and tough-on-crime policies, ironically, had to be jettisoned eventually because they were too expensive. But when he found the toughness to evolve and work within his principles with opponents, his achievements transcended their time.

When he realized the parallels between South African apartheid and the Armenian genocide fled by his parents, he reversed a long-held position and insisted that the University of California divest its massive retirement fund from that country.

His soul searching after a 1989 mass shooting in a Stockton schoolyard led him to buck the National Rifle Association and paved the way for California’s landmark ban on military-style assault weapons.

His decision in his second term to rethink his fiscal hawkishness and negotiate with a Democratic-controlled Legislature led to an $18.5 billion, 10-year initiative on transportation – funded with a 9-cent increase in the state gasoline tax.

Apartheid ended. The weapons ban lasted. The roads endured (as did the gas tax). And as Deukmejian was remembered this week, it was for the times he let decency trump dogma, and for the occasions when, as Brown put it, “he made friends across the political aisle.”

Times change, of course. Bipartisanship is punished now, particularly in Deukmejian’s party. It was impossible to mark his passing without noting how far the GOP has fallen from his day.

But neither tribe has the market cornered on intolerance, and good government is still a world apart from campaign credos. That, in the end, is the biggest takeaway from the Iron Duke’s tenure. Deukmejian was a Republican’s Republican, and Brown was a Democrat’s Democrat, but their real work was always in the middle, where rigid rules meet human needs, and fiscal hawks meet potholes.

The great ones know it’s all about how you bend, not how the other guy breaks.