SACRAMENTO -- The governor's Cabinet Room here is named after Ronald Reagan. Pictures of the former governor and president and his wife, Nancy, adorn the large, comfortable chamber.
Yet Reagan, despite his strong public image, was never as good a Reaganite as George Deukmejian, a modest son of Armenian immigrants whose remarkable record in eight years as governor -- now nearly finished -- probably will never escape the shadow of his famous predecessor.
As governor and president, Reagan celebrated an America of close families and honest politicians who resisted tax increases and fulfilled all campaign promises -- worthy goals but ones that even Reagan occasionally had difficulty achieving.
Deukmejian, on the other hand, has proven himself the staunchest of family men and presided over a scandal-free administration that stuck to his antitax, anticrime campaign platform far more closely than did any administration of any California governor, Reagan included.
With a boost from a vibrant national economy, California under the pro-business Deukmejian added 3 million new jobs and saw personal income increase. The state budget remained so solidly in the black because of Deukmejian's oft-criticized frugality that the state credit rating went from AA to AAA, a status enjoyed by only four other states.
Deukmejian, then state attorney general, was first elected in 1982 largely because he convinced a narrow plurality in defeating Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley by less than a percentage point that he would oppose gun control, appoint tough judges and build more prisons.
He appointed more than 60 percent of the state's judges, including a nearly complete overhaul of what once was an anti-death-penalty Supreme Court, and one result was a sharp increase in the length of sentences. He began the largest prison construction program in U.S. history -- 15 prisons, raising the inmate population from 35,000 to 96,000.
During his tenure, the FBI launched an investigation of legislative corruption, but the governor's office "left a record of eight years of integrity and honesty, not a single major scandal," said Ken Kachigian, a Republican attorney and speech writer who helped to lead Deukmejian's two election campaigns.
In more charismatic and ambitious hands, such a record might have propelled Deukmejian, at 62 four years younger than his friend George Bush, into national office and Reaganlike fame. But he never seemed comfortable with the compromises necessary to make that happen.
When James A. Baker III, then Bush's campaign chairman, asked Deukmejian in 1988 if he could be considered a potential Bush running mate, the governor said forget it. If Deukmejian went to Washington, Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy would become governor for at least two years, a chilling prospect to someone fighting the spending urges of a Democratic-led legislature for six years.
Despite Deukmejian's pinch-penny habits and staunch conservativism, he has at crucial moments surprised and pleased liberal detractors. After the massacre in January 1989 of five schoolchildren in Stockton, Calif., he signaled a willingness to ban military-style assault weapons although his opposition to gun control had been crucial to his 1982 election. Without Deukmejian's support, the narrow legislative victory of the nation's first statewide ban of assault weapons would have been unlikely.
In 1989, he softened his opposition to tax increases and helped to fashion a major compromise with legislative leaders that produced an $18.5 billion transportation program. Approved by voters this year, it imposes an eventual 9-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax to build more freeways and mass transit and repair roads.
Despite complaints from state school Superintendent Bill Honig, a Democrat, about Deukmejian's efforts to eliminate a guaranteed funding system for education, the governor has presided over a 65 percent increase in real dollars spent for public schools. The state university system, in the doldrums after the benign neglect of former governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. (D), received personal attention from Deukmejian, who knew what the system meant to the children of poor immigrant families such as his.
University of California President David P. Gardner said the new governor in 1983 asked him just three questions: What was the condition of the university system? What was the significance of that? What could he do to help?
The UC system then could persuade only 71 percent of its first-choice faculty hires to sign contracts. An immediate salary boost brought that figure back to 90 percent. Spending on higher education doubled, and Gardner regularly praises Deukmejian's "strong and consistent support."
In other areas such as health insurance, Deukmejian "was rigid," said Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). Conversations with Democrats in Sacramento are full of praise for Deukmejian the person and hair-tearing frustration with Deukmejian the politician. "If he was your neighbor, he'd be the first one to help you fix that fence that the wind blew down," said Robert Forsyth, press secretary for Senate President David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles). But as governor he was "someone who does not compromise well, does not yield well."
Deukmejian, during an interview in the Cabinet Room, responded to this with a small smile. Democrats, he said, were always asking him to make concessions at the start of the bargaining process when it was in his interest to wait until the end. Some critics said he should have socialized more to win Democrats' trust. But he was rarely invited to legislative parties, he said, and as governor "you don't have the funds to just begin having parties for people."
Deukmejian enjoyed being attorney general in part because he could live at home in Long Beach with his wife, Gloria, and their children, Leslie, George and Andrea, now all in their 20s. His vices seem confined to mocha almond fudge ice cream. His 1989 personal financial statement revealed few investments and only two $1,000 speaking fees plus his $85,000 salary.
After a two-week vacation in Hawaii, he seems intent on returning to Long Beach, taking up a law practice and forsaking offers to write memoirs. For such books to sell, he said, "you've got to be very critical of people, and I'm not willing to do that."
He made no secret of his disappointment that his anticrime, antitax campaign has not had a lasting impact on the behavior of criminals and legislators. When he took office, only 15 percent of convicted felons went to prison. That figure now exceeds 35 percent, "but the message still has not gotten out to a lot of criminals," he said, and crime rates have not significantly declined.
The legislature's refusal to take action on a looming $6 billion budget deficit sent Deukmejian's blood pressure even higher. "What do they do?" he said. "They go on vacation. It would seem that they could care less."
Deukmejian did his party a last, invaluable favor by announcing two years in advance that he would not seek reelection. That gave Sen. Pete Wilson time to organize a campaign that kept the governorship in GOP hands.
With voter approval of term limits, which Deukmejian opposed, and the legislature still in Democratic hands, Wilson faces "a very difficult challenge," Deukmejian said. Wilson's inauguration is scheduled Jan. 7.
The governor acknowledged that he will be remembered as strait-laced and stubborn, but many people like that, and he can say, as few governors can, that he gave Californians just what he promised. "I think," he said, in a bit of dry Deukmejian humor, "they're going to miss this wild and crazy guy."