Kirk West was not only a strong, effective and conscience leader for the business community but a gentleman in the true sense of the word and someone I enjoyed working with when he ran the California Chamber of Commerce for over a decade. This morning the Chamber announced Kirk West’s passing at age 79.
Kirk was involved with the major policy and political events in California for decades and approached them with a master’s touch in pursuing a strong California economy.
He was a good storyteller, too, talking about events he participated in whether it was playing golf with President Ronald Reagan or discussing the Proposition 13 campaign.
When he ran the California Taxpayers Association the organization had taken a position against Prop 13 when it was on the ballot. He told me of the time he spoke to the business group members relaying the arguments the no campaign had put together. When he was done he looked out at a lot of grim faces in the audience. He decided to ask who would vote for Prop 13. Practically everyone in the audience raised their hand, he said with a laugh.
Following is the press release issued by the CalChamber this morning remembering Kirk West:
Kirk West, longtime California business leader and confidante to governors, passed away yesterday. He was 79.
For two decades Kirk was the leading voice for business in California – as a strategist and spokesman for the California business community, and as an influential voice inside government. Kirk served as chief executive of the California Taxpayers’ Association, from 1974 to 1982, then as President of the California Chamber of Commerce, from 1986 to 1997.
Between those stints, Kirk served in the cabinet of Governor George Deukmejian as Secretary of the state’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.
“Kirk was a special person,” said CalChamber president and CEO Allan Zaremberg. “He showed us all that being gracious, humble and respectful is the perfect recipe for success.”
Zaremberg recalled that Kirk was far from a micromanager: “Soon after I joined the Chamber, I found that we were right in the middle of a dispute between Governor Wilson and Speaker Willie Brown. I sought Kirk’s sage counsel and direction. After several minutes of deep thought, he wheeled around in his chair and announced, “That’s why I hired you!”
Kirk led the California business community to new levels of political sophistication and influence. He not only helped broker legislative deals on workers compensation, civil liability, and transportation finance, but also established the infrastructure for and oversaw multimillion-dollar efforts to turn back anti-business ballot initiatives to raise taxes or increase regulation.
Under Kirk’s leadership, CalChamber initiated its long-running Job Killer program, identifying and leading opposition to the worst anti-business legislation.
Kirk began his political career in Sacramento in the early 1960s on the staff of Assemblyman Don Mulford, the Republican caucus chairman, and later worked for Minority Leader Bob Monagan. Kirk also worked as a deputy director of the Department of Finance under Governor Ronald Reagan until he was recruited as chief deputy State Controller under Houston Flournoy.
In a recent tribute, former Governor Pete Wilson, reflecting on a long-ago conversation with Kirk as Wilson considered a run for Assembly, said “I remember vividly and gratefully the Saturday morning in Sacramento when you dispensed not only practical wisdom about how to win and then make a useful difference in the Assembly, but also the hilarious observations and impressions you provided of some of the more pompous and self-important senior members of both parties.”
Kirk was born of Christian missionary parents in China in 1937. He would proudly regale listeners that “I was the largest baby born in Shangdong Province in 1937.” Nobody who knew Kirk would doubt that claim. On a trade mission to China in 1988 with Governor Deukmejian, Kirk arranged a reunion with his childhood nanny (“my Oma”), to his everlasting delight.
Kirk was mentor to generations of Sacramento policy and political professionals. He led by example, and was generous in delegating responsibilities and spreading credit. He approached his work as he did his golf game, with humor and humility.
Kirk is survived by his wife Kathleen, his children Sarah, Jennifer and David, and by many grandchildren. Services are pending.