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George Deukmejian
By: Doug Krikorian

Former governor George Deukmejian, 83, is spending his retirement years at his longtime home in Long Beach. He belies his age as he navigates the neighborhoods near his home in Belmont Park where he has resided for 51 years with his wife and where they raised their three children.

He was in the political maelstrom for 28 years -- he was the state attorney general for four and served in the state Legislature both as an assemblyman and senator -- but is now in leisurely retirement far removed from those frenetic days when he was a conservative Republican continually battling Democrats over taxes, the death penalty, budget cuts, etc.

"I used my veto powers more than 4,000 times as governor," he says, shaking his head softly in recollection. "The Democrats dominated the Legislature, and I'd constantly use the line-item veto on spending and taxes. I'd also use the veto on bills I didn't like. Not one of my vetoes were ever overturned."

When Deukmejian, ironically, succeeded Jerry Brown as governor on Jan. 7, 1983, he inherited a $1.5 billion deficit, minuscule compared with tothe monstrous $25.5 billion deficit that has confronted Brown since he returned to his old post earlier this year.

"The entire state general fund budget in those days was around $22 billion compared to more than $85 billion now," he says.

Despite fierce opposition, Deukmejian managed to slash state spending and keep the budget balanced throughout his incumbency, leaving office on Jan. 7 1991 without the state coffers overflowing in red ink.

Although he has remained a sideline spectator in regard to the serious financial crisis that has caused such turmoil in this state, Deukmejian, of course, does have his opinions on the matter.

"This never should have happened," he says. "The politicians in this state have been unable to say no to the pressure applied by all the special interests groups. That's all they had to do, but wouldn't do it and caved in too often.

"It's really simple. If you don't live within your means, you're going to go into debt. The same thing applies to the state. If you don't have the money, then funds shouldn't be appropriated.

"I use a motor vehicle as an example. It has to have a brake to go with the accelerator, or the car won't stop. And, if that happens, there's a serious problem. Well, the same goes with state spending. If there's no brake to stop its acceleration, they'll be a serious problem

"Like I said, this all didn't have to happen. All we had to do is live within our means. But we chose not to."

An honest man

George Deukmejian is seated at a corner table in the second floor lounge at the Long Beach Yacht Club on a recent early afternoon, and a lot of people come up and say hello to Deukmejian, who is unfailingly courteous.

Deukmejian smiles wanly, and you wonder how this nice man with a sweet disposition who never has been tarnished by the faintest whiff of scandal -- even his most passionate opponents have conceded his honesty and integrity -- ever wound up in the raucous arena of politics.

"It's just something I was always intrigued by," says Deukmejian, whose parents were Armenian immigrants from eastern Turkey and who grew up in a small hamlet called Menands near Albany, N.Y. "When I was going to college (Siena College near Albany), I got involved in some Republican organizations, and even attended the Republican Convention in Philadelphia in 1948 as a sergeant of arms for the Albany contingent.

Always low profile

Deukmejian still makes occasional speeches "for special occasions or special people," but steadfastly maintains a low profile, which was his persona when he was such a powerful personage in California that the Republican Party hierarchy reached out to him about being George H.W. Bush's vice-president running mate in the 1988 presidential election.

"I was sent a thick packet about what the job entailed, but I wasn't interested because I didn't want to leave the state to the lieutenant governor, Leo McCarthy, who would have taken over my position," says Deukmejian. "He was a Democrat, and would have had a lot of judicial positions to fill. I didn't want to cede all the power in this area to the Democrats, and I'm glad I didn't."

"I think we also created a good business climate for investors, and the result is that we created over 2.8 million jobs in the private sector. I think we were very business friendly. I also was the person that brought back the death penalty in California when I was a senator, but, unfortunately, the courts have pretty well hamstrung that with one decision after another against it."

Doug Krikorian . Press-Telegram Columnist can be reached at