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'Nice Guy' Doesn't Finish Last : Deukmejian Savors Legislative Victories

September 13, 1987|GEORGE SKELTON | Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO — They say, friend and foe alike, that he is stubborn, thin-skinned, unimaginative, uninspiring and not very sociable, although a nice guy personally. But far more important in his line of work, they note, he is a winner.

And Gov. George Deukmejian, in typical low-key style, was savoring some of his biggest victories ever Saturday after adjournment of the 1987 legislative session.

"This has been one of the most productive legislative sessions in recent history," he told a morning press conference, wearing a characteristically conservative pinstripe suit among casually dressed aides and reporters only a few hours after the lawmakers had gone home for the year.

These are some of the major triumphs the Republican governor could point to after having tangled with a Democratic-controlled Legislature for eight months:

--A $1.1-billion income tax rebate long opposed by Democrats.

--A landmark overhaul of the state income tax to bring it into general conformity with the new federal tax code.

--Authorization to build not just one, but two prisons in Los Angeles County, including one just east of downtown on a site bitterly opposed for nearly two years by Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles).

--A $560-million bond-financing plan to try to lure a $4.4-billion federal atom smasher to California.

--Preservation of a $1-billion budget nest egg belittled and denounced by state schools chief Bill Honig and Democratic legislative leaders.

--A $110-million aid package for counties written pretty much to his liking.

--And, although he kept a low-profile on the issue, a requirement long sought by Republicans that unwed pregnant minors obtain a parent's permission or a judicial decree before having an abortion.

One would be hard-pressed to point to any legislative battles of equal significance that the governor lost.

"I'd hate like hell to be in a poker game with that man," said Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim). "Who'd have said 60 days ago he would have won this tax rebate the way he did? Absolutely brilliant."

"He held all the cards," said Roberti, the governor's No. 1 legislative antagonist for the last two years.

One of these cards, Roberti and other Democrats said, was the fact that the majority party was anxious to rid itself of the issue of what to do with the state's $1.1-billion tax surplus. Although they would have preferred to spend the money on education and other programs, Democrats had nightmares about Republicans campaigning all over the state next year, roiling voters with accusations that their tax money was being hoarded in the Capitol by the likes of Roberti and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).

Deukmejian, asked Saturday how he managed to obtain passage of the tax rebate, said: "Democratic Party leaders learned we were not going to allow all that money to be spent simply on programs. . . . We held very, very firm in protecting the money for taxpayers. They realized we meant it when we said that was what we were going to do."

Comes Out on Top

A lot of people call that stubborn. "But you know what? He wins," commented the governor's chief of staff, Michael K. Frost.

When they are not being quoted by name, even Republicans throughout the Capitol freely describe Deukmejian as thin-skinned. Criticism bounces off some politicians like water off a duck--but not off "The Duke."

"He's very thin-skinned, very stubborn," Roberti said, "but not in private conversations. He's very cordial, easy going in one-on-ones. Of course, when he's irate at someone, he doesn't have one-on-ones." Roberti, in fact, went nine months without meeting with the governor because of bitterness over the prison issue.

It was not until the governor and legislative leaders--Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno), Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), Roberti and Brown--started holding weekly luncheon meetings near the end of the session that substantial progress began to be made toward resolving several major issues. And conceivably the most significant event of the legislative session may have occurred Aug. 19 when members of both houses met to eulogize the late Treasurer Jesse Unruh, a former Democratic Assembly Speaker.

Brought Them Together

Deukmejian, who had served in the Legislature with the legendary Democrat and is a very sensitive, emotional man despite his outwardly cool demeanor, sat at the Assembly rostrum throughout the entire four-hour service, sometimes with moist eyes. And at the end as he rose to leave, the governor turned to Roberti and Brown and said, according to one person present, "I'd like to get together with you and discuss some issues."

A week later they began their lunches. The governor also invited Honig to lunch Sept. 17. "What occurred earlier this year is over with," Deukmejian said Saturday of his bruising budget battle with Honig. "I think we'd better just go forward from here."

Significant Change?

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