Allan Zaremberg: A remembrance

Photo from Allan Zaremberg's Facebook page.

Allan Zaremberg, who died early Saturday, shaped California’s policy and politics for the better part of four decades on issues ranging from the nation’s first assault weapons ban to who should become Supreme Court chief justice.

In a way, it all began with a dog, as related by former California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, one of Zaremberg’s good friends.

In about 1979, shortly after graduating from McGeorge Law School, Zaremberg crashed his car when he swerved to avoid hitting a dog on a Sacramento freeway.

Rod Blonien, then a deputy attorney general, happened to be driving by and stopped to help. The two men got to talking and Blonien suggested that Zaremberg join Attorney General George Deukmejian’s staff – and then offered the young lawyer another piece of counsel:

“‘Next time, hit the dog,’” Cantil-Sakauye said Monday, recounting the tale Zaremberg told.

Zaremberg remained a life-long dog lover but did take Blonien up on his suggestion by joining Deukmejian’s staff, followed Deukmejian to the governor’s office, stayed on for a time working for Gov. Pete Wilson, and led the California Chamber for 23 years, ending when he retired in 2021.

Cantil-Sakauye met Zaremberg in 1988 when he was Gov. Deukmejian’s legislative affairs secretary, and she was hired as a young law school graduate to work in the legislative affairs unit.

“He was a magnificent leader, supervisor, mentor, and sponsor. He was a problem solver,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

In later years, Zaremberg would talk with pride about two successes in 1989 when he was Deukmejian’s legislative affairs secretary.

After a gunman slaughtered five young children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton in January 1989, Deukmejian, a law-and-order conservative, decided to sign legislation to ban the sale of certain assault weapons. It fell to Zaremberg to help shape the legislation, the first in the nation.

Then, after the October 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, Zaremberg was responsible for pushing legislation that sped reconstruction of damaged freeways and other structures.

“Allan came from a generation of people … who actually cared deeply about the state and were far less partisan than today’s people. He was a problem solver and was not a partisan,” said Sacramento attorney Steve Merksamer, who was Gov. Deukmejian’s chief of staff.

“He was a magnificent leader, supervisor, mentor, and sponsor. He was a problem solver.”

Zaremberg remained in the governor’s office when Wilson took office in 1991, leaving in 1992 for the Chamber of Commerce, and became the organization president in 1998, the year Gray Davis was elected governor.

During the years he led the chamber, Democrats expanded their numbers in the Legislature, and, for a majority of that time, Democrats held the governor’s office. And yet Zaremberg found ways to ensure business voices were heard. On occasion, he found common ground with the California Labor Federation and its then leader, Art Pulaski. More often, the chamber and labor were at odds. But when the chamber labeled bills as “job killers,” they would often would fail, or, if they won legislative approval, governors would veto them.

“He wanted to move things forward to get things done for California. You cannot say that about a lot of business leaders,” said Susan Kennedy, who worked with Zaremberg when she was cabinet secretary to Davis, a Democrat, and Chief of Staff to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In Davis’s first year in office, 1999, legislators introduced scores of bills aimed at overhauling the health care system. The chamber, whose members included health care providers, insurance companies and employers, was deeply involved in the lobbying to kill or soften the expansion. Zaremberg took particular interest in legislation that sought to expand mental health care coverage offered by health care plans.

“Allan Zaremberg was the reason that bill got passed,” Kennedy said. “Allan played a personal role in helping us craft the mental health parity bill that got signed. It showed his humanity.”

In 2010, when Schwarzenegger was governor, Zaremberg was instrumental in bringing Cantil-Sakauye’s name to Kennedy and to Schwarzenegger as a replacement for retiring California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, Kennedy said. George also recommended Cantil-Sakauye.

In later years, Zaremberg would tell Cantil-Sakauye what he thought of some of the court’s decisions, notably the unanimous ruling written by Cantil-Sakauye in which the justices concluded that companies such as Uber needed to treat drivers as employees. In their banter, Cantil-Sakauye would defend the decisions and encourage her friend to read the reasoning.

Zaremberg was an avid exerciser and a connoisseur of pastry, regularly bringing in boxes from Estelle Bakery & Pâtisserie and donut holes from New Roma Bakery. He also was a savvy political player and a student of California law.

“Allan came from a generation of people … who actually cared deeply about the state and were far less partisan than today’s people. He was a problem solver and was not a partisan.”

Marty Wilson, who oversees the chamber’s public affairs unit, recalls that in discussions about some fine point of law or another, Zaremberg would ask what the Constitution stated–and would proceed to call up the California’s voluminous Constitution on his phone.

In a series of ballot measures, voters changed rules governing elections heading into the 2012 campaign by creating an independent redistricting commission that drew competitive legislative boundaries, altering term limits, and creating a top-two system by which the two leading vote-getters in the primary would face one another in the general election, regardless of their party affiliation.

Although California remains solidly blue, the Chamber has spent millions in the past decade to shape the Legislature by backing the more moderate – or least liberal – Democrats running in California’s top-two system.

“Allan saw the need for it probably before any other business trade organization,” Wilson said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement praising him as “a fair and decent man to his core,” and saying he “always strived to build relationships and trust across the board, an increasingly rare feat.

A native of Pennsylvania, Zaremberg was an Air Force captain who went to college with help from the G.I. Bill. Zaremberg, who had been battling cancer, was 74 when he died.

He is survived by his wife Karen, their son Adam, a grandson, his sister Darlene – and a dog, the golden retriever Henry.

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