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George Deukmejian, Ex-Governor Of California, Dies

Walt Zeboski / AP Photo

In this May 20, 1987 file photo Democratic presidential, Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor, left, and Republican California Governor George Deukmejian, chat at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.

Walt Zeboski / AP Photo

(AP) — Two-term California governor George Deukmejian, whose anti-spending credo earned him the nickname "The Iron Duke," died Tuesday of natural causes, a former chief of staff said. He was 89.

The Republican spent three decades in California politics as an assemblyman, senator, state attorney general and governor.

He was elected as the state's 35th governor in 1982 when a massive absentee voting campaign edged him just ahead of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

As governor from 1983 to 1991, Deukmejian ran a law-and-order administration, expanding the state prison system, bringing the left-leaning California Supreme Court to the center and supporting tough, anti-crime legislation.

Steve Merksamer, who worked with Deukmejian in the attorney general's office and later as his gubernatorial chief of staff, described the former governor as "decent, humble and gracious" and someone who "demanded honesty and integrity."

Deukmejian's greatest moment, he said, was his advocacy for California to divest from South Africa during apartheid, a move that was controversial at the time.

"This was an act of enormous political courage," Merksamer said.

Despite a few notable exceptions, Deukmejian made his opposition to new taxes and increased government spending a focus of his political career. His favorite phrase was "commonsense," which in many cases translated into "cut" or "stop."

He earned the nickname "The Iron Duke" from his Republican supporters in the Legislature for his resistance to spending increases and his willingness to veto spending proposals.

"He had a very short agenda, which in terms of a governor is not all that bad," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "Basically, to not increase taxes and to deal with law enforcement, and he did it."

After he eliminated a $1.5 billion deficit, Deukmejian declared in a State of the State address that he had "taken California from I-O-U to A-OK."

But his reputation for prudent fiscal management was based in part on the robust national economy of that time. In the final months of his administration, a nationwide economic slowdown eroded state tax receipts, leaving his successor, Pete Wilson, with a deficit greater than the one Deukmejian inherited from Democrat Jerry Brown.

Deukmejian led the largest prison expansion platform in state history, said Merksamer. During his time in office, he brought the number of state prisons from 12 to 28.

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