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Keeping a Low Profile With 'First Lady Who?' : Gloria Deukmejian, Perceived as Traditional Wife, Juggles Politics and Family

January 13, 1985|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

She shops for groceries at a neighborhood supermarket in suburban Sacramento, usually in the company of a plainclothes state policewoman who could pass for her sister, and for months she went unrecognized. Only lately have people begun to take note of who she is.

As First Lady of California, Gloria Deukmejian might have passed her shopping list on to someone else, but she said no thanks , she preferred doing the family marketing herself--as the woman who is listed on the Deukmejian joint tax return as "housewife" has always done.

When their 18-year-old son, George, the second of their three children, went to UC Berkeley last September, Gloria Deukmejian, like any mother might, visited the dormitory room he had arranged to share with two friends, and encountered other students who rather excitedly wondered whether she had heard the governor's son was going to be staying on their floor. Why no, she hadn't, she said at first, straight-faced.

Parents' Night And when it came time for Parents' Night at Rio Americano High School, where their youngest, Andrea, who'll be 16 next month, is a sophomore, the state's First Couple stood in line--like everyone else. So unassuming were the Deukmejians that another mother, who had been in a rush, didn't realize she had accidentally bumped into them until the principal announced he was "honored to have Gov. and Mrs. George Deukmejian" in the audience--and they stood up.

Such is the low-key, low-profile life style of Gloria May Deukmejian, who pursues privacy with the same driven intensity that her husband has courted votes for two decades.

Now, after California's eight mate-less years under former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., she has become successor--an Administration once removed--to the peripatetic Nancy Reagan, who even then was forever at her husband's side and in the public eye.

Yet despite George Deukmejian's 22 years in public office--four in the Assembly, 12 in the state Senate, four more as state attorney general, and with his current four-year term half over-- she is still Gov. Deukmejian's wife who?

Meet Gloria Deukmejian--at 52, she has been married to George (whom she had met at a big family wedding) nearly 28 years--and the most striking thing, indeed the surprise, is her sense of humor. It is quick, spontaneous--and rather irreverent.

She's somewhat taller than you might expect, a solid-looking 5-feet-6 or so. Photographs, however, do not do her justice. They fail to reflect her vivid coloring: merry black-brown eyes, apple cheeks and flawless olive skin. She has the kind of looks a slash of bright red lipstick only enhances.

B.T. Collins, Brown's last chief of staff, a Republican, now executive vice president for Kidder-Peabody in Sacramento, experienced her humor more than a year ago. They had corresponded, mentioning a lunch, and at one point she hand-wrote: "I would like to meet you but George won't let me. He thinks you'll corrupt me--but then I don't always listen to George!" And they lunched.

'Surprise Roaster' She also floored them at a roast of her husband in Sacramento--a benefit dinner for the Coro Foundation, a national public affairs training program, and the California Journal, a magazine about governmental affairs. The "surprise roaster," the presumably staid Republican's wife, more than held her own against the likes of State Treasurer Jesse Unruh and State Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp.

Donning a Groucho Marx mask--a jab at the dark, mustachioed lineup of her husband's top aides--Gloria Saatjian Deukmejian, first-generation Armenian-American like her husband, told how George was a man who "never forgets birthdays or anniversaries." One year she got a screwdriver, another a wrench set. "As a result I have a complete tool set."

The governor was surprised. So, perhaps from another point of view, was the audience. "She stood up there against her image," recalled 31-year-old Robin Kramer, Coro's director and a former aide of the Southern California Democratic Party. "I didn't know her at all, other than she was this quiet, churchly lady who lived in Long Beach. She was not timid, and she was not square."

Nor did she appear intimidated Dec. 5 on "Look Who's Talking," a morning television show, part listener call-in, part interview, on KCRW, the Sacramento NBC affiliate. In her first, and, thus far, only solo television appearance, she defied image by talking about an issue--speaking out, as her husband had in a press conference the day before, on behalf of the death penalty--while sidestepping questions on government cutbacks.

'Just Moved In' And she candidly discussed her husband's future. A second term? "Of course," she smiled. "I just moved in." Beyond the governorship? "We've really given many many years to political office. I think not . . . one more term and I think it's our turn (to relax)."

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