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Jesse Unruh, Key Political Figure in State, Dies at 64

August 05, 1987|KENNETH REICH | Times Staff Writer

Jesse Marvin Unruh, often regarded as the most powerful Assembly Speaker in California history and a prominent figure in state politics for more than 30 years, died Tuesday night at his home in Marina del Rey after a long battle against cancer.

He was 64, and had been diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the prostate in 1983.

Family spokesman Kenneth Berk said Unruh died quietly, surrounded by his family.

In addition to his wife, Chris, he leaves a daughter, Linda; four sons, Bruce, Bradley, Robert and Randall, and a grandson. Funeral arrangements are pending. Berk said the family requested that donations in lieu of flowers be sent to the American Cancer Society.

Unruh, who was elected state treasurer in 1974, was a man of many accomplishments.

He modernized the state Assembly, concentrating unprecedented authority in the Speaker's office, fathering progressive legislation and playing a key role in national politics as chief supporter of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy in the most populous state in the union. But he never attained the post he most coveted: governor of California.

Although his intelligence and ability were widely recognized, many had doubts about some of the methods he used in wielding power, and Unruh, a man of gargantuan appetites who was once known as "Big Daddy," contributed to the doubts by verbal and other excesses.

The son of an illiterate sharecropper, he was a self-made man who never lost his working-class edges, despite having become wealthy and influential.

As Unruh approached age 60 in 1982, more than a decade after he unsuccessfully ran for governor, friends approached him about making another bid for the job. "If I were going to run," he replied, "I'd have to get married, stop drinking and be nice to reporters, and I don't want to do any of those things."

He had passed up an opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate in 1968 out of the mistaken belief that the incumbent Republican, Thomas H. Kuchel, was unbeatable. As it turned out, Kuchel lost in the primary to a right-wing educator, Max Rafferty, and Rafferty was defeated in the fall by Democrat Alan Cranston.

His 1970 bid to unseat then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had served one term, fell 501,057 votes short, even though Unruh ran better against Reagan than many political experts had expected.

Unruh also made a bid, in 1973, for the office of mayor of Los Angeles, running third behind Mayor-to-be Tom Bradley and then-Mayor Sam Yorty. At the age of 50, it seemed that his political career was over.

But the next year, alert to the opportunity afforded Democrats in the first post-Watergate election, he was elected state treasurer. Many thought the office a powerless one, yet in a short time Unruh converted it into an influential seat of control over the investment of billions of dollars of state funds, maintaining close relations with the legislative leaders and the two governors under whom he served.

Unruh, like some other leading California politicians of this century--Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, Richard M. Nixon, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Reagan--had a highly distinctive personality. In his case, it reflected a delight in the unbridled wielding of power.

At the height of the legislative phase of his career, weighing 290 pounds, he was the subject of a song sung at a party of the usually anti-Unruh liberal California Democratic Council. Based on Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" it was worded as if it had been written by one of the assemblymen under Unruh's control:

"I used to be in CDC

I dined on a hamburger patty.

But I had no strain

In my last campaign,

Now my heart belongs to Daddy.

I used to fare

Like any square,

Integrity drove my friends batty.

But now I'm hip

With my chairmanship

And my heart belongs to Daddy."

The song accurately reflected Unruh's technique of winning political allegiance by contributing substantially to his colleagues' campaigns, using money he had collected from lobbyists. Its implication that he did not run an honest ship drew the wrath of the Assembly Speaker. He regarded himself as an idealist, although one who was ready to use shrewd political tactics to make his ideals prevail.

At the outset of his legislative service, in 1955, Unruh had forsworn taking money from the lobbyists who frequently dominated the Assembly. But later, he wrote that he and a small group of confederates came to realize that the legislators who plied the straight and narrow often accomplished little and that it was hard to get elected and take political control without lobbyist money.

"So, stilling our doubts and scruples, we began to play the dangerous game of taking money from would-be corrupters--to elect men who would fight corruption," he wrote.

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