Former California Gov. George Deukmejian, who served two terms as the state’s chief executive in the 1980s, died earlier this week at his home in Long Beach at age 89.
A former member of the state Assembly and an ex-California attorney general, the Republican Deukmejian was the first person of Armenian descent to serve as a governor.
He was elected to the Assembly in 1962, then to the state Senate four years later. He became California attorney general in 1979 and served in that role until he was elected governor in 1983.
A native of New York, Deukmejian parents came to the United States to escape the Armenian genocide. He earned his law degree from St. John’s University, and he served as an attorney during a three-year stint in the U.S. Army.
He moved to California in 1955 after leaving the Army, and he set up a law practice in Long Beach. He eventually decided to run for public office, fueled by a passion for law enforcement and public safety. As governor, he championed prison construction and oversaw a tripling of the state’s prison population.
Despite the increase in prison spending, he was credited with dramatically slashing the state’s budget deficit. His often no-nonsense demeanor earned him the nickname “Iron Duke.”
“I used my veto powers more than 4,000 times as governor,” Deukmejian told the Long Beach Press-Telegram in 2011. “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.”
Deukmejian married his wife in 1957, and they had two daughters, Leslie and Andrea, and a son, George.
In the 2011 interview with the Press-Telegram, he pointed to his overhauling of the state Supreme Court has a hallmark of his governorship, while also improving the state’s business climate.
“I think we were very business friendly,” he said. “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.”
Former Gov. Gray Davis said in a statement posted on Twitter that he was “tremendously sad” at Deukmejian’s death, saying he served the state with honor and distinction, “including signing legislation prohibiting California pensions from investing in apartheid South Africa. George’s leadership moved the arch of history (and) changed the world.”