Where are they now? Wadie Deddeh

Sen. Wadie Deddeh in 2015. (Image: Screen capture, via YouTube., from Baitna Project testimony.

There are five people alive today who each served more than a quarter-century in the California State Legislature. Four of the five served as the leader of a house during their time in Sacramento.

The longest-serving, Willie Brown at nearly 31 years, was easily one of the most influential Assembly Speakers. David Roberti, John Burton and Bill Lockyer each served as Senate President pro Tem.

By 1946, Deddeh earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Baghdad.

The last member of the quarter-century club is 97-year-old Wadie Deddeh, who moved to the United States in his late 20s, rose to power as chair of the Revenue and Taxation committee, and retired from the Legislature in 1993. Wadie was born in Baghdad, Iraq on Sept. 6, 1920. His family, active members of the Chaldean community, were politically active and two of his uncles held seats in the Iraqi parliament. Life got more difficult at age 12 when his father died. By 14, Deddeh had dropped out of school.

One day at church, a priest who was trying to impress upon him the importance of an education, taught him his first words in English: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

These words changed the course of his life; “I fell in love with America,” he explained recently. He began to study English and applied for permission to emigrate to the United States. Although WWII delayed his plans by nearly a decade, he continued his education and by 1946 he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Baghdad.

State Sen. Wadie Deddeh (SDSU Library)

A year later, he received approval to leave Iraq. “America opened its doors to me,” Deddeh said, explaining that he has had a deep love of America ever since.  He settled first in Detroit, where he continued his education in the areas of political science and constitutional law.  In 1954, he married Mary-Lynn Drake, to whom he has been been married for 63 years. A few years later, the couple settled in Chula Vista, south of San Diego.

His life in America became political in 1960, when he volunteered on the Kennedy for President campaign. “I walked a lot of precincts during the campaign,” Deddeh said, “and I met all his brothers.”

He got a job teaching political science at a local community college and was gradually becoming more active in the local community when the assassination of President Kennedy pushed his political participation to a new level. “When JFK was assassinated, I cried,” he said, “I cried like a baby and then I gave the rest of my life to this country.”

Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims, the Legislature underwent a mid-decade redistricting, which opened up his Assembly seat. Unsure if he would run, Deddeh filed as a candidate for the state Assembly in 1966 to express his interest and “keep my name on the books.”

Hearing that he was running for office, his relatives quickly gave him $5,000 to fund his campaign. Campaign finance was different in those days, and Deddeh described an early fundraiser that brought in $20,000. “I put it in my pocket,” he said and there it stayed for the rest of the night.

He was defeated in the 1992 congressional primary by San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner, who went on to hold the seat for twenty years.

That November, Deddeh beat Republican Paul Sutherland by just over 1,000 votes. Speaker Unruh appointed Deddeh as vice chair of the Assembly Municipal and County Government Committee and as a member of both the Revenue & Taxation Committee as well as Transportation & Commerce.

Deddeh served on the Revenue and Taxation Committee for all but two sessions of his 16 years in the Assembly (the Republicans removed him temporarily in 1969 when they gained the Speakership) and most of his 11 years in the Senate.

After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Wadie decided to run for Congress the following year. He was defeated in the primary by San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner, who went on to hold the seat for twenty years.

Ten months later, Deddeh resigned from the State Senate and returned to teaching political science at Southwestern Community College. Deddeh says that although he enjoyed his time in Sacramento, it was also time to focus on his family. The highlight of his time since leaving the Legislature has been spending time with his grandson, although he is also very proud of his son Peter, who was appointed to the San Diego County Superior Court in the 1990s.

Now out of office for nearly as long as he was in, Deddeh said that although he is aging, he has loved the life that he lived. In late 2016, he spent more than a month in the hospital after falling and breaking a rib but said that he has been feeling much better recently. “I am in the hands of the Lord,” he said.

Ed’s Note: Alex Vassar, often referred to as the “unofficial historian of the Legislature,” is a state worker and the author of  “California Lawmaker.”

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