George Deukmejian, Anti-Crime Governor of California, Dies at 89

(Bloomberg) -- George Deukmejian, the governor of California who more than doubled the size of the prison system in the U.S.’s most populous state during his two terms in office during the 1980s, has died. He was 89.

He died Tuesday at his home in Long Beach, California, according to the New York Times, citing Steve Merksamer, Deukmejian’s former chief of staff.

Deukmejian, a Republican, was elected governor in 1982 after a narrow victory over Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, whom he defeated again in a landslide four years later. Deukmejian took on the job when the U.S. unemployment rate was 9.7 percent, the highest since World War II, and California’s budget deficit was $1.5 billion. Under his leadership, the state’s fiscal gap ballooned to $7 billion by the time he left office in 1991.

As governor he increased the number of state prisons to 26 in 1990 from 12 in 1983, he said in his 1990 State-of-the-State Address. Before his tenure, California hadn’t had a new prison since 1965, according to Corrections and Rehabilitation Department data. Deukmejian said the new facilities enabled the courts to send an additional 52,000 convicted felons to state prisons. He also appointed 1,000 judges in his eight-year term and a majority of the California State Supreme Court, according to the National Governors Association website.

‘Locks, Bars’

“I will use my office to ensure that we take every reasonable action to strive for a society where locks, bars and alarms are no longer considered necessities of life,” Deukmejian said in his first inaugural address in January 1983.

Deukmejian used his veto powers more than 4,000 times as governor, including on spending, taxes and bills he didn’t like, he said in a 2011 interview with the Long Beach Press Telegram newspaper.

“George Deukmejian is straight-arrow, very ethical, very honest,” Leo McCarthy, who served as lieutenant governor during Deukmejian’s term, said in interviews for the oral history program of the California State Archives.

“As governor, he undertook a lot of law-enforcement issues,” said McCarthy, a Democrat. “On other matters, he was a maintenance governor. He didn’t start a lot of initiatives.”

National Profile

Unlike former California Governor Ronald Reagan, who went on to become U.S. president, Deukmejian passed up opportunities to develop a national profile. He said he didn’t pursue a congressional seat because he wanted to keep his family in California.

Deukmejian, nicknamed “the duke” to abbreviate a surname that many found difficult to pronounce, said he wasn’t interested in becoming a running mate to Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush because he didn’t want to leave the governorship to McCarthy and cede power to Democrats.

Courken George Deukmejian Jr. was born on June 6, 1928, in Menands, a village in Albany County, New York. His father, George, was in the rug business, and his mother, Alice Gairden, worked in a factory pressing men’s ties. Both parents emigrated from Armenia.

Deukmejian earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Siena College in 1949 and a law degree at St. John’s University in 1952.

California Move

In 1955, Deukmejian moved to California where he met Gloria Saatjian, whom he married in 1957, and set up a law practice.

Deukmejian began his political career in 1963 after being elected to the California Assembly and served as a state senator from Los Angeles from 1967 to 1979. He was the state attorney general from 1979 to 1983.

After leaving office in 1991, Deukmejian joined law firm Sidley Austin LLP in Los Angeles and remained there until 2000.

In 1999, then-California Governor Gray Davis appointed Deukmejian and former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher to lead a commission studying hate groups.

The former governor and his wife had three children: Leslie, Andrea and George.

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