Jesse M. Unruh

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Jesse M. Unruh
26th California State Treasurer
In office
January 6, 1975 – August 4, 1987
Governor Jerry Brown
George Deukmejian
Preceded by Ivy Baker Priest
Succeeded by Elizabeth Whitney
54th Speaker of the California State Assembly
In office
September 1961 – January 1969
Preceded by Ralph M. Brown
Succeeded by Robert T. Monagan
Personal details
Born Jesse Marvin Unruh
September 30, 1922
Newton, Kansas
Died August 4, 1987(1987-08-04) (aged 64)
Marina Del Rey, California
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Virginia June Lemon (1943–1975)
Chris Edwards (1986–1987)
Children Linda Lu, Bruce, Bradley, Robert, Randall
Alma mater University of Southern California
Military service
Service/branch United States Navy
Battles/wars World War II

Jesse Marvin Unruh (September 30, 1922 – August 4, 1987), also known as Big Daddy Unruh, was a prominent U.S. Democratic politician and the California State Treasurer.

Early life[edit]

Born in Newton, Kansas, Unruh served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he enrolled at the University of Southern California, receiving a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism in 1948.

Political career[edit]

Unruh's political career began as an unsuccessful candidate for the California State Assembly in 1950 and 1952. He was elected as a member of the Assembly on his third attempt in 1954. In 1956, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Presidential Elector on the Democratic ticket for California. During 1959, he authored California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination by businesses that offer services to the public and was a model for later reforms enacted nationally during the 1960s and 1970s. Unruh was Speaker of the California State Assembly from 1961 to 1969 and a delegate to Democratic National Convention from California in 1960 and 1968.

As a national figure in the Democratic Party, he often feuded with fellow Democrat Governor Pat Brown (1959–67) and was a case-study in the James Q. Wilson treatise on machine politics, The Amateur Democrat.

As an early supporter of the 1968 Presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy, Unruh emerged as a pivotal figure before the Democratic Convention. He helped Kennedy capture the California Primary in June, but an assassin's bullet that same night ended Kennedy's life. In the confusion that followed, Unruh helped keep suspect Sirhan Sirhan from the reach of angry Kennedy supporters. After an unsuccessful effort, led by Unruh and Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, to draft Senator Edward M. Kennedy, he finally endorsed Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Unruh left the legislature to run unsuccessfully for governor against Ronald Reagan in 1970. One of his campaign workers was Timothy Kraft, who a decade later was the campaign manager for the unsuccessful reelection bid of President Jimmy Carter.[1] In 1973, Unruh ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Los Angeles.

When he ran for State Treasurer in 1974, the post was considered a "political backwater."[2] Unruh's radio advertisements assured voters, "Make no mistake about it, I really want this job." Once elected, Unruh transformed the office into a powerhouse of state and national politics. The Wall Street Journal noted he became "the most politically powerful public finance officer outside the U.S. Treasury".[2] California pension funds were a major source of revenue for Wall Street underwriting firms, and Unruh secured campaign contributions in exchange for steering business their way. The New York Times said he had taken over "an obscure post whose duties had long emphasized bookkeeping. In characteristic fashion, he soon transformed the job into a source of financial and political power that reached from California to Wall Street."[3] Because as Treasurer he was ex officio member of many California boards and commissions, Unruh oversaw "the raising and expenditure of virtually all the state's money and consolidated his influence over billions of dollars in public investments and pension funds."[3]

He served as State Treasurer from 1975 until his death from prostate cancer on August 4, 1987, only 8 months into his 4th term as Treasurer. Unruh remains the second longest serving California State Treasurer, behind only Charles G. Johnson (who served 33 years between 1923–1956). The University of Southern California Department of Political Science includes the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

Personal life[edit]

According to an apocryphal tale, Unruh was nicknamed "Big Daddy" by Raquel Welch, when the two were allegedly romantically involved. Welch denies the claim. It is more likely that the nickname comes from a character in the Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Former Senate pro Tempore Jim Mills in his book "A Disorderly House" insists it was given to him by then-Assemblyman Don Allen, though perhaps from the play.

Unruh was a Protestant and belonged to the American Legion. He married twice, and had five children. He is buried in Santa Monica, California.


On campaign contributions – "Money is the mother's milk of politics." 1966[4]
On lobbyists – "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them you've got no business being up here."[5][6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jeff Berg, "The Political Kraft", March 2008". Retrieved June 30, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b Dan Walters (March 2, 1988). "War of Succession for California's Bond Empire". The Wall Street Journal. 
  3. ^ a b Mark Uhlig (August 6, 1987). "Jesse Unruh, a California Political Power, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 July 2015. 
  4. ^ Lou Cannon. Ronnie and Jesse. p. 99. 
  5. ^ Cannon, Lou (2005). Governor Reagan: his rise to power. Ronald Reagan: A Life in Politics 1. PublicAffairs. p. 166. ISBN 1-58648-284-X. 
  6. ^ Matthews, Charles (Nov 11, 2007). "Boyarsky's 'Daddy' tells of politician with a penchant for partying". SF Gate. Retrieved 10 May 2015. 
  • Cannon, Lou. Ronnie and Jesse: A Political Odyssey (New York: Doubleday,1969) LCCN 78-87099
  • Herzberg, Donald G., and Jess Unruh. Essays on the State Legislative Process (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970)
  • Mills, James R. A Disorderly House, The Brown-Unruh Years in Sacramento (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1987)
  • Putnam, Jackson K (2005) Jess: The Political Career of Jesse Marvin Unruh. New York: University Press of America. ISBN 978-0-7618-3067-2.
  • Boyarsky, Bill (2007) Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-21967-0
  • Reich, Kenneth (August 5, 1987). "Jesse Unruh, Key Political Figure in State, Dies at 64". Los Angeles Times. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Ralph M. Brown
Speaker of the California State Assembly
September 1961 – January 1969
Succeeded by
Bob Monagan
Preceded by
Ivy Baker Priest
California State Treasurer
Succeeded by
Elizabeth Whitney