Magazine Sep/Oct 2012 Governor for the People

01 September 2012, 17:00
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Governor for the People

At 10 A.M. on the dot, a black classic Lincoln pulls up to the office – out steps former Governor George Deukmejian in a well-pressed suit. We formally shake hands and continue on our way to the elevators while we briefly chat off the record. An exchange of friendly background information takes place over fresh baklava and coffee right before our scheduled interview. An entire two hours later, a comforting realization hits me. As one of the most reputable politicians of our time, who was once considered as a vice presidential running mate by George Bush Sr., Governor Deukmejian possesses a humble and kind- hearted nature that is very human. During this interview, I was introduced to a side of our former governor that I could not search on Google. Much like how John F. Kennedy charmed the nation with his charisma and good looks, George Deukmejian evoked my interest far beyond his 28 years in politics.

The Forewarning that Led

The disturbing news was spreading – the oppression had begun and rules were changing under the Ottoman Empire. In 1907, a young Alice Gairdanian from Erzurum, Turkey, made her way to the United States accompanied by her mother and sister. With the help of family friends, they settled in the city of Troy, New York. Successfully escaping persecution in Turkey, Alice went on to marry Courken George Deukmejian Sr., who had also escaped from Turkey when he was 21 years old. “My father fled as well, knowing the policies of the Ottoman Empire were very hostile toward Armenians at that time,” Deukmejian explains. George Deukmejian Jr. was born in the village of Menands, New York, on June 6th, 1928, in the midst of the Great Depression. Making ends meet was a challenge for the Deukmejian family. His father, a jack of all trades, was originally a photographer but later went into the rug business. At that time, not very many people had the money to buy oriental rugs, and the business suffered. His mother Alice joined the workforce when George was six years old.

“Many of the Armenian women in our area went to work in factories. My mother made neckties; a very difficult type of work. My father went on to work for a company that sold paper products and stayed for the rest of his working life,” he says. The governor’s only sibling Anna was a remarkably talented pianist. Although she did not pursue a career in music, the piano forever remained her first love. As a young child, Anna would frequently play at local churches. “My mother had a very good voice. Several Armenian organizations would invite her to sing, and my sister would accompany her on the piano. Naturally, they would drag me along as a young kid. I had to sit there and listen to all the speeches and songs — they were very boring,” he laughs. On a train trip to Los Angeles, Anna fell in love with a Californian, Nubar Ashjian. They married, and Anna moved to the West Coast in 1950. George Deukmejian, in the meantime, was attending college in New York. He earned his law degree from St. John’s University in 1952 and was looking forward to a new chapter in his life.

A Lucky Encounter with Paris

When I asked the governor to talk about his experience in the army, he responded “Ha, now that’s another story!” Immediately my curiosity was aroused. Rightfully so, as the story behind the statement was clarified shortly. As soon as he graduated law school, and without getting a second to breathe, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in the rank of private first class. His first stop was post World War II Germany. At the time, the Korean War, the first major military conflict between the Western powers and Communist nations which lasted three years, was being fought. “In 1953, I could have easily been sent to Korea but instead I went to Europe. Boy, did I consider myself fortunate,” he says with a big grin.

While being relocated from Hamburg to Frankfurt in the midst of the Cold War, the second streak of luck came his way. As his papers were being processed, an officer in Frankfurt noted Deukmejian’s legal background, took him aside and asked him if he could somehow get a military leave pass to Bonn, Germany (headquarters of the U.S. Army) to see a general within the Judge Advocate Corps. “So… I told a little white lie and asked my commanding officer if I could go to Bonn and visit a relative. I was granted a three-day pass which enabled me to meet with the general. As he shuffled through my papers, he asked me, ‘Do you want to go to Munich or Paris?’ I told him ‘well…I took French in school, maybe I would be of more use in Paris,’” chuckles the Governor as he recalls the story. As soon as the orders were cut, Deukmejian was on the next train to the city of romance, where traditional protocol took an unconventional turn. He signed on to the Army Claims Team, the sector responsible for processing assault claims made by French nationals against U.S. army personnel.

After the war in 1954, France made every effort to rebuild the nation and its tourism industry. The French were very apprehensive about having uniformed soldiers guarding their beloved capital, fearing it would frighten potential tourists. “I was given an allowance to rent a chic apartment in town. I was also restricted from wearing a uniform, so instead I wore my regular clothes. I would get up in the morning and walk to work. Our office was located in the heart of the Champs Elysees, one block from the Arc de Triumph. It really felt like a civilian job – I could not believe this was my assignment. I was very blessed.”

On his return to the United States, a piece of sisterly advice from Anna Ashjian forever changed the course of his life. “After my time in the army was over, my sister and her husband encouraged me to come to California because of the number of opportunities. So I drove from Albany, New York to Los Angeles and settled there in 1955. She was right: there was more opportunity for me in California.”

From a Part-Time Lawyer…

New to the Golden State and eager to practice law, studying for the California Bar Exam became Deukmejian’s top priority. “When I passed the bar exam, I started my professional law career at the County Council Office. We handled all the civil legal matters for the county,” says Deukmejian. Around the same time, at an Armenian wedding in 1956, Gloria Saatjian, whose parents were also Genocide survivors, caught the eye of young and handsome George Deukmejian. “The wedding was in Pasadena; we met and started dating soon after. She lived in Long Beach, where she had grown up. We went on four dates, I think, and I asked her to marry me. Since then, it has been 53 years,” he explains proudly. As a newlywed, Governor Deukmejian settled in Long Beach, California and started his private practice. At that time, law offices were mainly in downtown, and no one had tapped into the Belmont Shore area, which lies on the eastern side of Long Beach. “I went to the weekly newspaper and said ‘Are there any law offices around here?’ They said no. So I decided to rent an office space on the second floor of an independent bank building. 

A stranger to the city, Deukmejian took whatever business came in the front door. Starting off as a simple Republican Party volunteer, his connection with the city grew stronger as he became well-acquainted with the local state assemblyman and joined his reelection efforts as the campaign manager. In 1962, George Deukmejian ran for state assembly and won. Interestingly enough, at that time, legislature positions were only part-time, so Deukmejian continued to practice law adding three new partners. In 1966, the people of the state successfully voted to change the legislature from part-time to full- time. “My salary was $6,000 a year. After the ruling, it went up to $16, 000,” laughs Deukmejian. Soon George Deukmejian was elected as a state senator, representing the district from the east side of Long Beach to the outskirts of Whittier, California. “Around 1970, I made an effort to become the Attorney General of California and lost. I lost badly. I did not even make it through the first Republican primary,” says Deukmejian. All of that changed eight years later when he won, becoming the only Armenian Attorney General in California. With more relationships, experience and political connections, the win came easily. As Attorney General, he strengthened the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, established a Special Prosecutions Unit and a Crime Prevention Center. He was strict on prosecuting consumer fraud and Medi-Cal fraud among other white collar crimes.

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