Political Notebook

Deukmejian leaves behind legacy as spokesman for Armenians, advocate for Valley growers

George Deukmejian’s life in photos

Former California governor George Deukmejian died Tuesday, May 8, 2018. He was 89. Here are photographs from key moments in his life and political career.
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Former California governor George Deukmejian died Tuesday, May 8, 2018. He was 89. Here are photographs from key moments in his life and political career.

George Deukmejian, the California governor who served from 1983 until 1991, enjoyed strong support from central San Joaquin Valley residents during his two terms in office — and made frequent visits to Fresno.

Deukmejian, who died Tuesday at age 89 at his home in Long Beach, had many allies among the Valley's agribusiness interests. As governor he appointed a disproportionate number of Valley residents to high and mid-level state jobs and maintained close contact with a number of local political and business leaders.

Nicknamed "The Iron Duke" for his hard-line approach toward crime, he once called Fresno County not only the No. 1 agricultural county in the state, but "perhaps the No. 1 agricultural county in the whole country."

"I love Fresno," Deukmejian declared in October 1985 during a $250 per person fundraising dinner at the Centre Plaza Holiday Inn Conference Center. At that event alone he raised $245,000 — the most any candidate had raised at a Valley event up until that point. The event was so popular that 150 supporters had to be turned away because it was packed.

Deukmejian also maintained strong connections with the Armenian community, both in Fresno and the nation.

Here are a few local highlights of Deukmejian's time in office:

Strong Valley political support

Deukmejian enjoyed strong support from both parties. For example, when he defeated Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in 1982, Deukmejian won virtually all Central Valley counties and carried 44 of the state's 58 counties, according to the Fresno Bee's archives.

He defeated Bradley in Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties by a 55 to 45 percent margin in 1982. In his rematch against Bradley in 1986, that support increased to around 70 percent.

He had strong connections with Central Valley legislators, like Fresno Assemblyman and then state Sen. Kenneth L. Maddy.

Deukmejian in 1985 said he'd appointed more than 70 people from Fresno County alone to key positions in government. Among those key appointees was Fowler native and attorney Marvin R. Baxter, who in January 1983 became Deukmejian's appointments secretary, managing all of the governors appointments, including those of judges. Baxter had been co-chairman of Deukmejian's Fresno County campaign.

Baxter went on to be nominated by Deukmejian to the state Supreme Court in 1990, the first time someone from the San Joaquin Valley sat on the Supreme Court since 1859.

International spokesman for Armenian community

Deukmejian in many ways was seen as a spokesman for the Armenian community, both in Fresno and nationally. More than 1,000 people of Armenian heritage from the San Joaquin Valley attended Deukmejian's Sacramento inauguration in January 1983. Attendees included Fresno real estate developer Leo Kolligian and Armenian-American actor Mike Connors, who at the inauguration read an excerpt from Fresno writer William Saroyan.

Kolligian also hosted receptions at his Fresno home for Deukmejian and other Valley legislators.

Criticisms of Reagan administration

In his role as governor, Deukmejian was critical of President Ronald Reagan's unwillingness to recognize the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the early 20th century.

He blasted the Reagan administration in 1985 for its refusal to support a proposal naming April 24 Armenian Martyrs Day. Deukmejian disagreed with Reagan's statement that the resolution would hurt American relations with Turkey, a member of the NATO Alliance.

Deukmejian's parents came to the United States because of the Turkish massacre of the Armenian people, and one of his aunts was a victim.

In 1985, Deukmejian proclaimed a Day of Remembrance to honor all victims of genocide. "As a citizen of the freest and most tolerant nation on Earth, I feel a personal responsibility to remember and speak out against these atrocities," he said.

"His speaking out against the president really put him in the limelight. It means a lot to Armenians. He's the first person of real prominence we've ever had at the state level. We're seeing him speaking for something he didn't have to," Fresno State journalism professor Art Margosian told The Bee in June 1985.

Deukmejian also narrated the film "Strangers in a Promised Land," which chronicled the saga of Armenians' first 100 years in Fresno. Deukmejian also attended the premiere of the film at the William Saroyan Theatre in February 1984.

Valley battles with Chavez

Deukmejian was not without his critics. Among his most prominent detractors was farm labor leader Cesar Chavez, who charged that Deukmejian's administration did not enforce the state's farm labor laws, which Deukmejian denied.

Whereas Deukmejian's predecessor Gov. Jerry Brown was largely seen as an ally to Chavez and his United Farm Workers, Deukmejian was seen by many as a political ally to growers.

Deukmejian filled the Agricultural Labor Relations Board with appointees who were viewed as friendly to growers, and often sided with farmers on issues, like attempting to derail efforts by United Farm Workers to organize national grape boycotts.

He told the Nisei Farmer's League during a February 1985 meeting that he had brought fairness to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board through his appointees and that Chavez, who then was president of the United Farm Workers, "couldn't stand it."

"Our policy is fairness — it's fairness for the farmers and fairness for the farmworkers. That's the law that's the way it should be administered," Deukmejian said.

Although the two leaders were known to trade jabs, Deukmejian did acknowledge during a 1985 meeting with The Bee's editorial board that Chavez improved the plight of ag workers. "But I think you also have to continue to recognize that we have without question the most significant law as it relates to agricultural labor in the country", Deukmejian said.

Still, a year later while on the campaign trail in his second run against Bradley, Deukmejian said Chavez-inspired strikes and boycotts had hurt state agriculture and led to "violence and destruction" in the fields.

In response, Dolores Huerta, then first vice president of UFW, said "Throughout history of organizing farmworkers in the state, the only incidents of violence have been against farmworkers. "

Victor Patton: 559-441-6074; @VAP_SBJ