George Deukmejian

George Deukmejian

Official portrait
35th Governor of California
In office
January 3, 1983  January 7, 1991
Lieutenant Leo T. McCarthy
Preceded by Jerry Brown
Succeeded by Pete Wilson
27th Attorney General of California
In office
January 8, 1979  January 3, 1983
Governor Jerry Brown
Preceded by Evelle J. Younger
Succeeded by John Van de Kamp
Member of the California State Senate
In office
Member of the California State Assembly
from the 39th district
In office
Preceded by William Grant
Succeeded by James A. Hayes
Personal details
Born Courken George Deukmejian, Jr.
(1928-06-06) June 6, 1928
Menands, New York, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Gloria Saatjian
Children Leslie
Residence Long Beach, California, U.S.
Alma mater Siena College (B.A.)
St. John's University (J.D.)
Religion Episcopalian[1]
Military service
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1953–1955
Unit Judge Advocate General's Corps

Courken George Deukmejian, Jr. (/djkˈmən/;[2] born June 6, 1928) is an American politician who was the 35th Governor of California from 1983 to 1991 and Attorney General of California from 1979 to 1983. Deukmejian was the first and so far the only governor of a U.S. state of Armenian descent.

Early years

Deukmejian was born Courken George Deukmejian, Jr. in Menands, New York. His parents were Armenians who emigrated from the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s to escape the Armenian Genocide.[3] His father, George Deukmejian, who lost his sister during the Genocide, was a rug merchant, and was born in Gaziantep. Deukmejian's mother, Alice Gairden,[4] was born in Erzurum and worked for Montgomery Ward and later for New York State. Deukmejian graduated a B.A. in Sociology from Siena College in 1949. He then earned a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from St. John's University in 1952. From 1953 to 1955, he served in the U.S. Army, assigned to the Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Deukmejian moved to California in 1955 where his sister, Anna Ashjian, introduced him to his future wife Gloria Saatjian, whose parents were immigrants from Armenia. They married in 1957 and had three children: two daughters, born in 1964 and 1969; and one son, born in 1966.

Political beginnings

Deukmejian entered politics in California after a short period of private practice in Long Beach alongside Malcolm M. Lucas. He was elected to represent Long Beach in the State Assembly in 1962. In 1966, he was elected as a state senator, serving from 1967 to 1969. By 1969, he was the Majority Leader of the California State Senate. He first ran for Attorney General of California in 1970, finishing fourth in the Republican primary. He won the election for Attorney General in 1978 and served from 1979 to 1983. During this time, he led a high-profile campaign against cannabis in northern California, at one point descending by helicopter along with flak-jacketed, gun-toting agents on a cannabis farm.[5]


Deukmejian was elected in 1982 to his first term as Governor of California, defeating Lieutenant Governor Michael Curb, a recording company owner, in the Republican primary (1,165,266 or 51.1 percent to 1,020,935 or 44.8 percent). One of his early primary backers was former gubernatorial candidate Joe Shell of Bakersfield, California, a conservative who had opposed Richard M. Nixon in the 1962 primary.

Jerry Brown (left), Gray Davis (center) and George Deukmejian (right) on September 2, 2010

In the general election, Deukmejian ran as a conservative supporter of public safety and balanced budgets. In addition, he was strongly critical of outgoing Governor Jerry Brown and promised to run a very different administration. He also strongly criticized the state Supreme Court, which was dominated by Brown appointees, notably controversial Chief Justice Rose Bird.

Deukmejian narrowly defeated Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the general election. Deukmejian won the election by about 100,000 votes, about 1.2 percent of the 7.5 million votes cast. The victory came despite opinion polls leading up to the election which consistently showed Bradley with a lead, and despite exit polling conducted after voting closed which led some news organizations on the night of the election to make early projections of a Bradley victory. The discrepancy between the polling numbers and the election's ultimate results would come to be termed the "Bradley effect", which refers to a hypothesized tendency of white voters to tell interviewers or pollsters that they are undecided or likely to vote for a black candidate, but then actually vote for his opponent.

Deukmejian's governorship was a departure from his predecessor, Jerry Brown. He vowed not to raise taxes, appealing to the business community by repealing some consumer and environmental requirements. He presented himself as law and order candidate proposing new efforts to fight crime. He faced a Democrat-dominated California State Legislature during his two terms as governor. He was the sole Republican statewide officeholder until Thomas W. Hayes was appointed California State Treasurer, following the death of Treasurer Jesse Unruh.

In 1983, Deukmejian abolished the Caltrans Office of Bicycle Facilities and reduced state spending for bicycle projects from $5 million to the statutory minimum of $360,000 per year.[6] In 1984, he vetoed A.B. 1, the first bill to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians, which passed the Legislature. There were rallies and protests statewide.

During his first term, Deukmejian won the voters' approval. In 1986, Bradley sought a rematch and Deukmejian defeated him by a 61% to 37% percent margin, a record not broken as of 2015. Deukmejian served as Governor from 1983 to 1991. He is generally regarded as a moderate-to-conservative Republican.

The Deukmejian administration entered office during a national economic recession. California had a $1.5 billion budget deficit with an unemployment rate of 11.2%. He first halted the hiring of new state employees and banned out of state travel for those in government. He rejected the legislature's demands for tax hikes, and pared $1.1 billion from its budget by selectively vetoing spending items. One year later, further cuts, along with a nationwide economic rebound that benefited the state, created a billion dollar surplus for 1985. At one point his approval ratings had reached 68%. His 1985 budget slightly increased spending in highway construction, but cut heavily into education, health, Welfare and environmental budgets. For this he was roundly criticized, and probably led to his low polling numbers at the end of his tenure as governor.[7][8]

Three years later, Deukmejian faced his own billion dollar deficit. He supported a raise in the state minimum wage in 1989. During Deukmejian's administration, the general fund budget grew by 98% without any increase in general tax rates. (California State general fund budget: 1982–1983 $21.7 billion; 1990–1991 $42.9 billion.)

Deukmejian largely made his career by being tough on crime. When he was in the legislature, he wrote California's capital punishment law. As a candidate for reelection, in 1986 he opposed the retention election of three Brown-appointed justices of the California Supreme Court due to their consistent opposition to the death penalty in any and all circumstances. One of them (the best known) was Rose Bird, the first female Chief Justice of the Court (and the first one to be voted off). Deukmejian proceeded to elevate his friend and law partner, Malcolm M. Lucas, from Associate Justice to Chief Justice, and appointed three new associate justices. Under Deukmejian, the California prison population nearly tripled – as of December 31, 1982, the total prison population stood at 34,640 inmates. By the end of 1991 the population had reached 97,309. He increased spending for the building of new prisons.

In 1988, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush considered Governor Deukmejian as a possible running mate for the presidential election that year. During a trade mission to South Korea in August, Deukmejian sent a letter saying he could not be considered for nomination, refusing to leave the governorship to Democratic Lieutenant Governor Leo T. McCarthy.[9] Deukmejian did not seek reelection to a third term as governor in the 1990 gubernatorial elections. The Republicans instead nominated sitting United States Senator Pete Wilson, who defeated Dianne Feinstein in the general election.

In 1991, in his last two hours in office, he vetoed the property tax exemption bill passed by both houses of the Legislature which applied to companies building solar thermal power plants in California. Although the Legislature enacted the exemption in early 1991, companies would still face significant levels of property tax and other taxes. This exemption was focused towards the Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS) plants then being built by Luz International Limited (Luz) in the late 1980s.[10] The veto led directly to the bankruptcy of Luz.


Deukmejian was a partner in Sidley & Austin, a national and international law firm, from 1991 to 2000 when he retired. He reentered public life by serving on special committees, including one to reform the California penal system, and a charter-reform committee in his hometown of Long Beach. He oversaw a revamping of the UCLA Willed Body Program after a scandal involving the sale of human body parts donated for science.

Deukmejian received an honorary doctor of laws degree from California State University, Long Beach in 2008 because of his support for education, state law, and Long Beach.[11]


  1. Chandler, Russell (12 September 1985). "Farrakhan's Message of 'Hate and Bigotry' Is 'Evil'--Deukmejian". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 13 January 2014. Deukmejian, a member of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Long Beach...
  2. "Deukmejian". The CMU Pronouncing Dictionary. Retrieved 21 December 2011.
  3. "Leading the way to justice in South Africa". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 11 December 2013.
  5. Hamburg, Dan (May 2, 2000). "Pandering Californian Pols Keep Fighting Losing War On Marijuana". Common Dreams. Retrieved 21 December 2011.
  6. Alan Wachtel (1990). "A History of CABO" (PDF). Bicycle USA. Retrieved 2009-04-17.
  7. Magnuson, Ed (1983-01-17). "New Governor, New Style". Time. Retrieved 2011-01-21.
  8. Stanley, Alessandra (1984-01-23). "California's Down-to-Earth Duke". Time. Retrieved 2011-01-21.
  9. The Associated Press (1988-08-05). "Californian Removes Himself From Running for No. 2 Spot". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-21.
  10. Madrigal, Alexis (2011). Book Factory, ed. Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Da Capo Press (Perseus Book Group). p. 132. ISBN 978-0-306-81885-1.
  11. Paul Browning (26 May 2008). "Former California Gov. George Deukmejian to Receive Honorary Doctorate Degree from Cal State Long Beach". California State University, Long Beach. Retrieved 2008-05-27.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to George Deukmejian.
California Assembly
Preceded by
William Grant
California State Assemblyman, 39th District
Succeeded by
James A. Hayes
Party political offices
Preceded by
Evelle J. Younger
Republican Party nominee for Governor of California
1982, 1986
Succeeded by
Pete Wilson
Political offices
Preceded by
Jerry Brown
Governor of California
January 3, 1983–January 7, 1991
Succeeded by
Pete Wilson
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