LOS ANGELES, AUG. 4 -- Jesse Unruh, the wheeler-dealer "Big Daddy" speaker of the California Assembly who later transformed the state's treasurer's office into a national economic force, died tonight of cancer at his Marina del Rey home. He was 64.
Unruh, the son of Kansas sharecroppers, was the first major California politician to back John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign.
He managed Kennedy's campaign in Southern California and headed Kennedy's bloc of votes in the California's delegation to the 1960 Democratic National Convention.
Eight years later, Unruh was chairman of Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign in California and was at Kennedy's side when Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary.
Unruh was perhaps best known in California for the seven years during the 1960s when he was the flamboyant "Big Daddy" of the Assembly, a shrewd power broker who dominated the lower house.
"Fad writers hit on the Big Daddy nickname and buried my legislative accomplishments," Unruh complained later. "No legislator in California history has passed as much major legislation as I have."
Unruh is credited with California's most comprehensive body of pro-consumer credit legislation, the 1959 Unruh Credit Reporting Act, which protects those who buy on installment contracts. California's civil rights act, enacted the same year, also carried Unruh's name. The act was approved years before similar legislation was adopted at the congressional level.
His stormy tenure as speaker included a historic battle with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan over tuition for the University of California.
Unruh also won accolades for his tenure as state treasurer, a post Unruh first won in 1974 after a series of political setbacks that appeared to end his career. In 1970, he ran unsuccessfully for governor, losing by 500,000 votes to Reagan. In 1973, he ran for mayor of Los Angeles for mayor of Los Angeles and came in third, behind Tom Bradley, who won the election, and then-Mayor Sam Yorty.
As treasurer, Unruh took a position that had been relatively powerless and converted it to a central role in California government. He expanded the office's bond-issuance authority and added what, by law, was only an advisory review process over local government bonds, but which in practice amounted to a veto over bond sales he deemed unwise.
Unruh also won wide praise in the financial world for his aggressive management of California's $15 billion in securities.
Institutional Investor magazine said Unruh "may be the most politically powerful public finance officer outside the U.S. Treasury" and put him at the top of its list of the 10 savviest municipal borrowers in the United States.
However, Unruh's public image in recent years was still fixed on the 295-pound "Big Daddy" of the 1960s, when he ran the Assembly with an iron fist, clashed with Govs. Reagan and Pat Brown, and elevated the Legislature to equal footing with the governor in initiating new policies and programs.
Although he upgraded the legislature, his tactics won him enemies as well as admirers. One of his most notorious acts as speaker occurred July 30 and 31, 1963, when he locked up the Republican members of the Assembly in the legislative chamber for 22 hours and 50 minutes because they were refusing to provide the votes necessary to approve the state budget.
He eventually backed down and later admitted that "I sort of lost my judgment on the thing."
Unruh married Virginia June Lemon in 1943. They separated in 1973 and divorced in 1977. They had four sons and a daughter. Unruh married the former Chris Edwards in 1986.