Skip to comments.Long Beach's George Deukmejian: At 83, a quiet retirement
Posted on 07/05/2011 11:48:23 AM PDT by SmithL
He belies his age as he navigates the neighborhoods near his home in Belmont Park where he has resided for 51 years with his wife and where they raised their three children.
The gait is firm, the voice is strong, the eyes are alert, the posture is erect, the hair is plentiful, and the face is unlined.
His birth certificate insists he's 83, but the laws of time have been rescinded with George Deukmejian, who doesn't look that dramatically different now than he did when serving two terms as governor of California.
He was in the political maelstrom for 28 years -- he was the state attorney general for four and served in the state Legislature both as an assemblyman and senator -- but is now in leisurely retirement far removed from those frenetic days when he was a conservative Republican continually battling Democrats over taxes, the death penalty, budget cuts, etc.
"I used my veto powers more than 4,000 times as governor," he says, shaking his head softly in recollection. "The Democrats dominated the Legislature, and I'd constantly use the line-item veto on spending and taxes. I'd also use the veto on bills I didn't like. Not one of my vetoes were ever overturned."
When Deukmejian, ironically, succeeded Jerry Brown as governor on Jan. 7, 1983, he inherited a $1.5 billion deficit, minuscule compared with tothe monstrous $25.5 billion deficit that has confronted Brown since he returned to his old post earlier this year.
"The entire state general fund budget in those days was around $22 billion compared to more than $85 billion now," he says.
Despite fierce opposition, Deukmejian managed to slash state spending and keep the budget balanced throughout his incumbency, leaving office on Jan. 7 1991 without the state coffers overflowing in red ink.
Although he has remained a sideline spectator in regard to the serious financial crisis that has caused such turmoil in this state, Deukmejian, of course, does have his opinions on the matter.
"This never should have happened," he says. "The politicians in this state have been unable to say no to the pressure applied by all the special interests groups. That's all they had to do, but wouldn't do it and caved in too often.
"It's really simple. If you don't live within your means, you're going to go into debt. The same thing applies to the state. If you don't have the money, then funds shouldn't be appropriated.
"I use a motor vehicle as an example. It has to have a brake to go with the accelerator, or the car won't stop. And, if that happens, there's a serious problem. Well, the same goes with state spending. If there's no brake to stop its acceleration, they'll be a serious problem
"Like I said, this all didn't have to happen. All we had to do is live within our means. But we chose not to."
An honest man
George Deukmejian is seated at a corner table in the second floor lounge at the Long Beach Yacht Club on a recent early afternoon, and a lot of people come up and say hello to Deukmejian, who is unfailingly courteous.
A fellow who says his name is Tilo Lizza approaches and says, "George, you probably don't remember me, but I saw you once at the airport and said to you, 'You look just like George Deukmejian.' And you responded, 'That's what my mother says to me.'"
Deukmejian smiles wanly, and you wonder how this nice man with a sweet disposition who never has been tarnished by the faintest whiff of scandal -- even his most passionate opponents have conceded his honesty and integrity -- ever wound up in the raucous arena of politics.
"It's just something I was always intrigued by," says Deukmejian, whose parents were Armenian immigrants from eastern Turkey and who grew up in a small hamlet called Menands near Albany, N.Y. "When I was going to college (Siena College near Albany), I got involved in some Republican organizations, and even attended the Republican Convention in Philadelphia in 1948 as a sergeant of arms for the Albany contingent. I was 20 at the time, and the Republican presidential nominee was Thomas Dewey, who would lose the election to Harry Truman. I was also involved in Dwight Eisenhower's presidential campaign in 1952."
Deukmejian would obtain his law degree from St. John's University, and during the three years he spent at the school he earned money as a pipe fitter working in old New York apartment buildings.
"Not the most fun job in the world," he says.
But fun was just around the corner for Deukmejian.
After passing the New York bar, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, did his 16-week boot camp training at Fort Dix, N.J., and then spent two years in Paris handling legal claims lodged by French citizens against American military personnel.
A young American bachelor in the City of Light who had his own apartment must have had his share of nocturnal adventures, but Deukmejian, predictably, won't elaborate on the intriguing subject.
When he got out of the service, he visited his married older sister, Anna Ashjian, in Los Angeles and, like so many people who came out here from the East, immediately became smitten by the mild weather.
He relocated permanently to California in 1955, studied a year for the bar, failed in his first attempt, made it in his second, and then began his career in law as a deputy county counsel on civil matters at about the same time ashis sister introduced him at a wedding to a Poly High graduate named Gloria Saatjian.
Deukmejian admits he was struck by a romantic thunderbolt, as he says he asked Ms. Saatjian to marry him on their fourth date.
She countered to be patient, and, indeed, Deukmejian's didn't have to wait long. Four months later -- Feb. 16, 1957 -- they exchanged vows and 54 years later they're still a devoted couple, taking annual summer family trips with their daughters, Leslie and Andrea, son George and six grandchildren to places like Santa Cruz, Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Valencia.
Always low profile
Deukmejian still makes occasional speeches "for special occasions or special people," but steadfastly maintains a low profile, which was his persona when he was such a powerful personage in California that the Republican Party hierarchy reached out to him about being George H.W. Bush's vice-president running mate in the 1988 presidential election.
"I was sent a thick packet about what the job entailed, but I wasn't interested because I didn't want to leave the state to the lieutenant governor, Leo McCarthy, who would have taken over my position," says Deukmejian. "He was a Democrat, and would have had a lot of judicial positions to fill. I didn't want to cede all the power in this area to the Democrats, and I'm glad I didn't."
When you ask Deukmejian what he considers his noblest achievements as governor, he pauses thoughtfully a moment and then says, "I think the input I had on the state judiciary was important.
"My judicial appointees have done a good job in upholding the laws in California. There had been some problems in this area in the state Supreme Court, especially when Rose Bird was head of it.
"I think we also created a good business climate for investors, and the result is that we created over 2.8 million jobs in the private sector. I think we were very business friendly. I also was the person that brought back the death penalty in California when I was a senator, but, unfortunately, the courts have pretty well hamstrung that with one decision after another against it."
Deukmejian became a partner in the Los Angeles international law firm Sidley & Austin between 1991 and 2000, but now the man who was close to Ronald Reagan and had conversations with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev lives a most tranquil existence unencumbered by computers, cellphones and iPads.
"Oh, you know what my proudest achievement really (italicize really) is," he volunteers. "Persuading Rich Archbold (the former Press-Telegram executive editor) not to kick Pickles comic strip out of the funnies."
Sad to hear this. I’m from LB. He was a good guy.
I remember when Tom Broadly, former Los Angeles mayor, tired to make hay with ‘I will be the first African American governor of California’ and Duke countered with ‘I will be the first Armenian American’.
George “Duke” Deukmejian was California’s last great governor.
Belmont Park!? Lost me.
I know of Belmont Shore as I spent a great deal of time there in my youth, and where I grew up in Belmont Heights, but don’t ever recall a Belmont Park.
Wondering if it’s some new development, and where in Long Beach.
He has not yet assumed room temp..
Deukmejian lives in a modest home near the intersection of Park Avenue and Broadway.
With so much drama in the L-B-C...
Maybe he will run against Jerry Brown in 2014
OK, got it. Nice area above Belmont Shore, and East of the Heights. I grew up in the 3rd, and Euclid area.
When I lived in California, I was upset with Deukmejian for signing a bill banning new sales of semi-automatic rifles in California.
LA County Sheriff Sherman Block and LA Police Chief Daryl F. Gates were by his side at the signing.
Not a good day.
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