By KATHLEEN RONAYNE
The Associated Press
SACRAMENTO — Two-term California governor George Deukmejian, whose anti-spending credo earned him the nickname “The Iron Duke,” died Tuesday of natural causes, a former chief of staff said. He was 89.
The Republican spent three decades in California politics as an assemblyman, senator, state attorney general and governor.
Related story: Long Beachs George Deukmejian: At 83, a quiet retirement
He was elected as the states 35th governor in 1982 when a massive absentee voting campaign edged him just ahead of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
As governor from 1983 to 1991, Deukmejian ran a law-and-order administration, expanding the state prison system, bringing the left-leaning California Supreme Court to the center and supporting tough, anti-crime legislation.
Steve Merksamer, who worked with Deukmejian in the attorney generals office and later as his gubernatorial chief of staff, described the former governor as “decent, humble and gracious” and someone who “demanded honesty and integrity.”
Deukmejians greatest moment, he said, was his advocacy for California to divest from South Africa during apartheid, a move that was controversial at the time.
“This was an act of enormous political courage,” Merksamer said.
Despite a few notable exceptions, Deukmejian made his opposition to new taxes and increased government spending a focus of his political career. His favorite phrase was “commonsense,” which in many cases translated into “cut” or “stop.”
He earned the nickname “The Iron Duke” from his Republican supporters in the Legislature for his willingness to veto spending proposals.
“He had a very short agenda, which in terms of a governor is not all that bad,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “Basically, to not increase taxes and to deal with law enforcement, and he did it.”
After he eliminated a $1.5 billion deficit, Deukmejian declared in a State of the State address that he had “taken California from I-O-U to A-OK.”
But his reputation for prudent fiscal management was based in part on the robust national economy of that time. In the final months of his administration, a nationwide economic slowdown eroded state tax receipts, leaving his successor, Pete Wilson, with a deficit greater than the one Deukmejian inherited from Democrat Jerry Brown.
Deukmejian led the largest prison expansion platform in state history. During his time in office, he brought the number of state prisons from 12 to 28.
His agenda included more things he wanted to stop than start.
“Some equate a visionary administration with the number of new massive and expensive government programs that are proposed,” he said in his second inaugural address in 1987. “We embrace the vision of our nations founders that only a limited government is compatible with liberty and democracy.”
Deukmejians anti-crime stance dated back to his days as a state senator from Long Beach, when he led the move to reinstate Californias death penalty.
Deukmejian drafted a 1977 law that legalized the death penalty in California. It passed in the Legislature, but then-Gov. Brown refused to sign it — so Deukmejian headed one of the few successful overrides of a governors veto in state history.
He was known as one of the Legislatures most productive authors of law-and-order bills. During his 16 years as a state lawmaker, he wrote more than 100 bills, including a 1975 law known as “use a gun, go to prison” because it required prison time for anyone who used a gun during the commission of a crime.
Deukmejian traced his law-enforcement orientation to his childhood in a town outside Albany, New York, where he lived next to the police and fire departments.
“I just started out with a very close, friendly relationship to people in law enforcement. If I had grown up believing, as some young people do, that law enforcement is against people, I probably would have a different attitude,” he told The Associated Press.
Deukmejian was elected attorney general in 1978, serving for four years until he took the office of governor, during which he led a campaign to eradicate Californias marijuana fields.
He decided not to seek re-election for a third term. In 2004, he was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to chair an independent review panel on Californias youth and adult correctional systems — an appointment critics found ironic because Deukmejian presided over the states massive prison building program.
Deukmejian was born June 6, 1928, to Armenian immigrants in Menands, New York. He graduated from Siena College in 1949 with a degree in sociology then worked his way through St. Johns University, earning his law degree in 1952.
He later moved to California, where he met his wife, Gloria Saatjian, also the child of Armenian immigrants.
They married in 1958. Four years later, he was elected to the Assembly representing Long Beach.
This story contains biographical material assembled by former AP reporter Anna Oberthur.