George Deukmejian: The Anti-Trump

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

The passing of former Governor George Deukmejian is a reminder of how much has changed in our political environment, particularly on the GOP side of the aisle. In virtually every way, Governor Deukmejian was the opposite of Donald Trump.

A thoroughly decent man, Deukmejian displayed less ego than almost any politician you can think of.  The Trumpian “politics of ME” were totally foreign to him.  Self-promotion was an art Deukmejian never practiced.  Lying and exaggeration weren’t in his playbook.

Deukmejian’s election as Governor was not preordained.  He was happy as California Attorney General after stints in the California Assembly and State Senate representing his home town of Long Beach.  Law and order was very much his issue.  It is said that the impetus for his entry into the gubernatorial race, was a distaste for then Republican Lieutenant Governor Mike Curb, whom he bested in the 1982 GOP gubernatorial primary, to take on Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the General Election.

Bradley was considered the favorite in the race; indeed, Bradley narrowly surpassed Deukmejian in election day votes. But Deukmejian was the beneficiary when Democratic activists placed a tough gun control initiative, Proposition 15, on the November ballot. A highly-organized absentee ballot campaign by the gun lobby against the initiative spurred gun rights voters especially in the Central Valley, to register their opposition to Prop. 15 and, on the same ballot, vote for the GOP “law and order” candidate–providing Deukmejian with his narrow overall margin of victory.

Nevertheless, defying his party and the gun lobby, after gunman Patrick Purdy shot up a Stockton school yard, killing 5 children and wounding 30 others, Governor Deukmejian signed a tough assault weapons ban championed by Democratic legislators.Deukmejian said he did not see “any reason why anybody has to or needs to have a military assault-type weapon, even somebody who is a sportsman or a hunter.”

Contrast that with Donald Trump’s continued fealty to the National Rifle Association in the wake of Parkland, Orlando, Los Vegas, and other horrific shootings.

Throughout his presidential campaign and during the first year of his Presidency, Trump touted his great plans to rebuild America’s infrastructure. So far, nothing has happened.

Governor Deukmejian, a genuine conservative and budget hawk, recognized the necessity of investing in infrastructure and took the politically risky step of working with key Democratic legislators, as well as the business community, to enact a an $18.5-billion, 10-year transportation improvement plan to be financed primarily by a significant, 9-cents-per-gallon, gas tax increase. It would be another quarter century before a Democratic Governor, Jerry Brown, and the Democratic Legislature would pass another substantial transportation tax plan.  Today’s Republican Party is mounting an initiative campaign to repeal the new package in a desperate attempt to boost GOP turnout in November.

While President Trump views trade pacts as wounds to the U.S. economy, Governor Deukmejian’s administration implemented an aggressive trade and international business development program that has played a considerable role in establishing California as a major player in the international economy.

Governor Deukmejian couldn’t be described as a visionary, but he took his stewardship seriously.  He never left Long Beach, where he remained for the rest of his life.  Not a rich man, public service was his calling and he didn’t really prosper until after he was out of office and practicing law with a major firm.  Always a mainstream conservative Republican, he worked with Democrats to solve California’s problems.

It is hard to imagine George Deukmejian succeeding in today’s hyper-partisan, Twitter-infected political environment, where values and civility too often take back seat.

To say the least, those of us who knew Governor Deukmejian know that George Deukmejian was no Donald Trump.

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