What? A Decent Democrat?
This is a biography of Jesse Unruh, California’s legendary House Speaker who for years influenced national politics while towering over California politics. In the words of the author, Unruh was “the most influential pragmatist who dominated American politics in the past World War II era.” The author sees Unruh as a leader during a time when government operated more effectively, compared to today, and when strong political leaders were able to achieve significant goals. Unruh is credited, as a state legislator, for directing efforts that significantly reformed and improved school financing and giving shareholders rights in the companies in which they owned stock. Unruh was an important partner in public policy efforts that helped transform California through growth in highways, schools, and infrastructure that attracted millions to settle and make California our nation’s most populated state. He guided enactment of policies that improved the mental retardation and mental illness systems (including ending the nation’s largest program of sterilization of the mentally ill), modernized child welfare systems, and vastly advanced civil rights laws.
Unruh loved power, enjoyed playing power games, and was good at achieving power. The author admires Unruh in that while Unruh seemed obsessed with obtaining and using political power, Unruh did so because he truly wanted to help people. He was not a politician who sought influence for the sake of power. He did so with strategies to help others.
Unruh’s political finagling was a main factor in the successful movement to make the California legislature into a full time job. He thought this was necessary to reduce the reliance on lobbyists and state administrators as the source of information and influence. Unruh won the fight to hire full time professional legislative staffs so the legislature could develop its own expertise. The system of professional legislatures was one that was copied by many other states.
Unruh had his faults, both personally and professionally. His full time legislature failed to motivate those legislators who didn’t do much to do anything more. Still, the new system was regarded as a vast improvement over what existed.
On a personal level, Unruh was a hard drinking, swearing, womanizer, and proud of it. Yet, he never let his personal flaws mix with his work ethic. It was Unruh was stated, and meant, the famous line that “if you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money, and then vote against them, you’ve got no business being here.”
Unruh was a leader in making the school systems more accountable. He also saw a future in providing more training of students in emerging technologies, which had the benefit of setting the stage for the creation of Silicon Valley’s high tech industries.
Unruh both grabbed power, and kept his fellow Democratic legislators above the taint of lobbyists, by insisting that all lobbyists contribute directly to him and then let him decide how to parcel out the funds to Democratic candidates. This thus made Unruh both the point person for all lobbyists to contact and for all Democratic legislators and legislative candidates to plead for campaign financial assistance.
Unruh was elected to the legislature in 1952. He understood the importance of informing and connecting with voters by publishing a political tabloid in his district which, of course, favorably mentioned his work. Unruh also foresaw a changing California with increasing numbers of immigrants, whom Unruh helped become citizens and, in the process, become favorable to Democrats. He also saw the increasing industrialization of his part of the state, and the need of Democrats to reach out to the interests of working class voters.
Unruh led a challenge against the virtual control of the California legislature by a lobbyist, Arthur Samish. (See the December 2005 D Tails for a review of Arthur Samish’s autobiography.) Samish continued virtually ruling the legislature even after imprisoned for corruption. Samish, while a private citizen lobbyist, controlled much of the flow of campaign funds from lobbyists to legislatures, a practice that Unruh used as a model for cementing his legislative power.
The power that Unruh obtained led many to question his connections to the lobbyists who contributed to him. Lobbyists more often seek not to pass legislation but to kill legislation. It is also less obvious to show what caused a bill not to pass.
Unruh once combined principles with power in support of his proposed to ban racial discrimination in public schools, restaurants, and most any institution where the public was a customer. His bill passed the House but was held in Senate committee. Unruh then refused to allow any Senate bill to be considered by the House. He held this position until the Senate leadership caved in and allowed the bill to move. The Senate amended the bill in hopes of weakening it yet left in the key phrase that banned racial discrimination “in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” Its enactment provided California with one of the most extensive anti-discrimination laws then in the country.
Still, Unruh remained a person of contradictions. The author and fighter for strict laws against racial discrimination opposed fair housing legislation. Unruh felt this bill would upset too many people. Unruh would fight and find ways to win, yet he never saw himself, nor did most observers, as an ideologue. Unruh believed in the fights he fought, but he saw little need to stand up for principles when it might mean a political loss.
Nor did Unruh always fight fairly. A legislator threatened to spread the word about Unruh’s mistresses. Unruh responded by promising, if the legislator did so, to spread lies about the legislator that would destroy her career.
The test of loyalty for Unruh was supporting Unruh’s budget proposal. Unruh once locked the legislature in its chamber for two days until it passed his budget proposal. Unruh won some key projects for neglected urban areas that he thought would have won approval from the press. Yet the press was very critical of the manner in which he had strong-armed the legislature. It was noted that Unruh’s nickname of “Big Daddy” (the title of this book) before then had been a name stated out of respect. From then on, “Big Daddy” was a title meant for a disrespected bully.
Unruh then tangled with organized labor, which refused to support his reelection because they felt he had not been supportive enough. Unruh responded with rage and threatened to publicize a labor leader’s arrest record in retaliation. As one labor leader put it, that incident “really sort of brought down my hero…to a degree where he’s now mortal like all of us.”
Unruh’s policies also did not always operate as desired. He fought for legislation that moved many people out of poorly run mental health institutions. He had hoped that better run community health facilities would provide better service for many of these patients. Yet Governors Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown refused funding for the community health facilities. It is believed that this instead led to a large increase in the number of people in prisons and jails.
Unruh was a supporter of Robert Kennedy for President and was beside Kennedy when he was assassinated. After the shooting, as the assassin Sirhan Sirhan was being arrested, he proclaimed “I did it for my country” to which Unruh inquired “why him?”, to which Sirhan only replied “it’s too late.”
Unruh ran for Governor in 1970 yet lost to Ronald Reagan by 53% to 45%. Unruh was later elected State Treasurer. Unruh transformed the State Treasurer’s office from one with little power into a power base. Unruh personally chaired seven of the state’s nine authorities and he was a member of 29 government bodies. Along with this influence came the ability to hire many staff people in these agencies. The author states that Unruh was the most powerful public finance officer other than the U.S. Treasurer.
Political campaigns began transforming. Personal campaigning and sending out tabloids soon became outdated. In 1974, Unruh was elected State Treasurer by spending $12,699. In 1985, Unruh raised $513,592 and most contributors were from financial firms. The special interest politics that Unruh had taken away from Samish found a way to return. Still, Unruh felt himself a populist. He was offended by greenmail, which he felt was businesses rewarding financial extortion. This upset him directly as the California pension funds lost $7.5 million solely due to Disney’s efforts to prevent a takeover from Saul Stenberg. Unruh became a champion of stockholders’ rights.
Unruh died in 1987. He was a legendary state legislator. He had his many imperfections, yet overall, he tried to make his state better, and in that, he succeeded.