Bill Whalen

Honoring one of Sacramento’s wise men, a dying breed

George Dunn, right, speaks to reporters at the state Capitol in February 1997 after being introduced as Gov. Pete Wilson’s chief of staff.
George Dunn, right, speaks to reporters at the state Capitol in February 1997 after being introduced as Gov. Pete Wilson’s chief of staff. Sacramento Bee file

We say goodbye Thursday to a family member – “we” being those who had the privilege of working for Pete Wilson. The dearly departed was George Dunn, Wilson’s chief of staff for his final two years as governor.

If you didn’t know Dunn, a fixture in California policymaking for the past 35 years both inside and outside of government, you missed something special. He was smart (the man knew bureaucracy inside out) and he was sophisticated (how many people try to recruit you into their bridge game?). He was also kind, even-keeled and approachable in a job that sorely tested all three virtues, which is why he was popular on both sides of the aisle and multiple floors of the state Capitol.

I understand that some grimace when the word “family” is bandied about, but from the perspective of Wilson insiders the ties are personal – beginning at the top.

Before Dunn, Bob White was Wilson’s chief of staff – his confidante, alter ego, hirer, firer and problem solver for 30 years. Few in politics have enjoyed such a long and fruitful partnership. To watch White lunch in the Capitol cafeteria was to understand how pashas interacted with the members of their court.

Thus was the tricky hand dealt Dunn when he took over the reins of the “horseshoe” in early 1997. Though Wilson had known him before his time in Sacramento, when Dunn was a Claremont McKenna academic, trust had to be established. Moreover, he had to contend with the normal staff defections in an administration’s penultimate year and the natural friction with a contentious Democratic Legislature.

Yet Dunn made it work. In his first year on the job, welfare reform was enacted after plenty of finessing and hard bargaining. Soon thereafter, Wilson signed the largest reduction in California personal income taxes since FDR’s days, with only two dissenting votes in the Legislature.

This isn’t to say that the times were idyllic. In Dunn’s two years, the state budget was signed about seven weeks past due, but it wasn’t his fault. In the 1990s, budget votes required supermajorities in both chambers, which meant greasing both parties’ wheels.

But this was also the age of “Big Five” meetings, when the governor and four legislative leaders made deals in private over food, cigars and stiff drinks. That meant Wilson squaring off with his 30 years in politics against the Senate leader, Bill Lockyer, with 25. Because of the caliber of the negotiators, “mega deals” such as welfare and tax reform were possible, even in an administration’s twilight.

With a “retro” governor currently running California, it’s easy to forget that politics is a generational pursuit with old guards giving way to the young. The next generation that assumes power in Sacramento in 2019 won’t lack for energy or ambition, but compared to some preceding administrations it will be short on institutional knowledge. This gives next-gen the option of doing things its way (i.e., trial and error), or tapping into the wellspring of smarts and sensibility that’s within easy walking distance of the state Capitol.

George Dunn was one of Sacramento’s wise hands. Any governor would have been lucky to have him by his or her side. One governor was.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at