Obituaries

George Deukmejian, former governor of California; at 89

Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and California Governor Deukmejian spoke in 1987.
Associated Press/File
Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and California Governor Deukmejian spoke in 1987.

SACRAMENTO — Two-term California governor George Deukmejian, whose antispending 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 ahead of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

As governor from 1983 to 1991, Mr. 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, anticrime legislation.

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Steve Merksamer, who worked with Mr. Deukmejian as his gubernatorial chief of staff, described the former governor as ‘‘decent, humble, and gracious’’ and someone who ‘‘demanded honesty and integrity.’’

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Mr. 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, Mr. Deukmejian made his opposition to new taxes and increased government spending a focus of his 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 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.’’

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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.’’