SACRAMENTO — Former Gov. George Deukmejian, known best to Californians as a hard-boiled crime fighter, choked up with emotion and could not finish answering a question Thursday as he recalled the enormity of personally coping with the deaths of innocent people.
The Republican "Iron Duke," as his critics used to call him, fought against tears as he broke down at a political forum. He appeared with former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. and former Assembly Speakers Leo T. McCarthy and Willie Brown, all Democrats.
The symposium in the state Senate chamber was intended to give the current crop of senators an opportunity to get counsel from experienced political figures on social, economic and political issues facing California in the future.
But Deukmejian, a death penalty advocate who served as governor from 1983 to 1991 after a term as attorney general and a long career in the Legislature, brought the show to a temporary stop when he was asked about his most difficult policy decision as state chief executive.
He brushed aside policy issues and instead sketched the "role that a governor plays in representing the public in situations that are very tragic" and "extremely difficult to deal with."
He struggled as he recalled the collapse of the multilevel Nimitz Freeway in Oakland during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, saying, "You know that there are at least 42 people who are dead, who never had a chance."
His voice cracking, he then recalled attending annual memorial services in the same Senate chamber for slain peace officers and "seeing and hearing . . . young widows and young children with no husband or father."
Fighting to keep his composure between pauses, Deukmejian also told of attending the funeral services of five elementary school children in Stockton who were slain six years ago by a "crazed individual who just opened up with an automatic weapon."
As lawmakers and fellow panelists sat at silent attention, Deukmejian abruptly stopped and took a sip of water. Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) asked him if he wanted to continue, but Deukmejian waved him off.
The schoolyard slaying by drifter Patrick Purdy is widely considered responsible for spurring enactment of California's pioneering ban on assault guns. Long an opponent of gun controls, Deukmejian insisted that new restrictions were unnecessary.
But friends said Deukmejian was so horrified by the Stockton massacre that he signed the controversial bill into law.
While Deukmejian briefly turned a conference on the future into heartfelt lessons of the past, there were other moments as well.
Willie Brown, never one to shun a dramatic entry, interrupted the symposium by arriving 15 minutes late. Recently elected mayor of San Francisco, he carried his new trademark mayoral fedora in hand. He said he was delayed by a television appearance.
Former Gov. Brown, a born-again Democratic populist and one-time consummate campaign fund-raiser, hammered at some of his favorite themes, ranging from eliminating corporate greed from the political process to spending more money on education at the expense of prison construction.
The former governor noted that his appearance in the Senate chamber was his first since 1981, when he was "thrown out" by former President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys). Roberti said at the time that Brown hadn't been invited.
"Welcome back," Lockyer quipped to Brown, "but don't make a habit of it."
Deukmejian also showcased his wry sense of humor, recalling that he happened to be listening to a radio talk show one day during a deadlock over the state budget between Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature.
Deukmejian, who engaged in his share of similar deadlocks, said a listener called the show and said, "You know, this wouldn't be happening if George Deukmejian were still alive."
Jerry Brown and McCarthy agreed that their biggest mistake in the 1970s was their failure to recognize the depth of homeowner anger over skyrocketing property taxes. As a result, the landmark Proposition 13 initiative was approved by the voters in 1978. Its political shock waves reverberate to this day.
Brown, who opposed Proposition 13, said he long had viewed himself as a champion of the anti-tax movement, but he found himself "fighting the hottest anti-tax proposal in American history."