Big Daddy

Mail call: Dear Big Daddy

Editor’s Note: Big Daddy (aka Jesse Marvin Unruh) was the most formidable state legislator of the 20th Century — and that’s saying something, considering the likes of Hiram Johnson, Willie Brown and Rose Ann Vuich.  Unruh was elected to the California Assembly in 1954 and served as speaker for eight tumultuous years (1961-1969).

Is there a mystery you want solved? A nugget of arcane knowledge that you want shared? A postgraduate lesson in the realities of politics? Write him c/o Capitol Weekly and let him know: Big Daddy’s your man and he always delivers.

At the height of his power, he weighed 275 pounds, and had prodigious appetites for food, drink, women, and power; he was a coiner of phrases, many of them still quoted: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics;” “If you can’t take their (lobbyists’) money, drink their booze and screw their women, you have no business being here.” Others are less printable.

But behind the public image, he was nuanced, caring, sophisticated, light-footed and capable of intrigue on an Elizabethan scale.

His portrait still beams down on lesser mortals from on high at the front of the Assembly’s biggest hearing room.

Big Daddy departed the scene in 1987, after he had served for well over a decade as state treasurer and, in characteristic fashion, he transformed that office into a national powerhouse.  But now he’s back, thanks to the miracle of cyberspace — fit, feisty and ready to enlighten curious minds on all matters political.

So don’t hesitate to write. If something’s been bugging you, don’t just gnash your teeth. Seek answers. Big Daddy is here to help.

(Drum roll as we start dipping back into the mail bag…)

Dear Big Daddy,

Why don’t more legislators become governors? They are all ambitious politicians, aren’t they?

–Curious in Cucamonga


Dear Curious,

They are certainly ambitious, but the odds are against them.

There are 80 members of the state Assembly, and 40 members of the state Senate, plus big-city mayors and the occasional Silicon Valley billionaire who suddenly discovers politics, and that’s not even counting members of Congress and statewide officers. They all want to be governor.

But there is only one governorship. Even with those odds, legislators are all interested.

I can’t recall knowing a single member of the California Legislature who at one time or another had not given at least passing thought about going for the Corner Office. And I knew a lot of legislators. Of course, I myself ran for the governorship back in ’70. I slimmed myself down to a 36-inch waist and flew all over the damn state, but Ronald Reagan somehow managed to pull it out. But I did cut his victory margin in half, compared to what he did to Pat Brown four years earlier.

I’m the exception, of course, but legislative skills and executive skills don’t match very well. You can be a terrific lawmaker and a total wipe-out as a mayor, dogcatcher or governor. As an executive, you’re constantly making decisions about who to promote, who to fire, who to hire and who to suck up to. You wonder — a lot — about running for president.

You have to know which levers to pull, whose chain to yank and which ears to bend. In addition, you’re California’s cheerleader-in-chief. You don’t do that so much when  you’re just one of 120 members of the Legislature.

There’s more: It’s the rare legislator who has a grasp of statewide politics or how to run a statewide campaign. They’re used to a district, not a state, especially a state with 38 million people. Remember Bob Moretti? No? Let me refresh your memory.  He was a good man and a very able legislator. He ran for the Democratic nomination for governor against Jerry Brown. He voiced his own radio commercials and they sounded as if he wanted to make a deal with the voters. He lost — big.

Willie Brown — a legendary lawmaker but, age aside, he would be a total bust if he ever decided on a statewide race. You have know what plays in Pleasanton and Dinuba and Los Angeles, and that isn’t always what gets you success in San Francisco.

George Deukmejian, who followed Brown’s first two terms, is an exception. He was a law-and-order Republican member of the state Senate, and he became a law-and-order governor. What’s really ironic is that he beat a former Los Angeles police chief — Tom Bradley — twice. The second time, Deukmejian beat Bradley like a rented mule, as we used to say in Texas, by a 61 percent to 37 percent margin, which is ridiculous. And Deukmejian, unlike me, is still on this Earth.

So, Curious, wonder no more. The governorship is just not in the cards for most legislators, no matter how much they may lust for the job. That’s not to say that one of them may someday make it — just ask Deukmejian or Pete Wilson — but given the low esteem most voters hold for the Legislature today, it’s even less likely now than it was when I was around.

And is wasn’t very likely then…

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