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Jesse M. Unruh, California Legislator. OAC

 
 

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Biographical History

Jesse Marvin Unruh, Democrat, was a State Assembly Member from 1955-1970, representing the 65th Assembly District in Los Angeles County until 1970. The 65th Assembly District included the cities of Inglewood and Hawthorne. He served as Assembly Speaker from 1961-1969, and Assembly Minority Floor Leader from 1969-1970.

Unruh was born in Newton, Kansas on September 30, 1922, the youngest of five children. His parents were impoverished German-Mennonite sharecroppers who moved to Texas when Unruh was seven. Although his parents were illiterate, he did well in school graduating at the top of his high school class in 1939 and securing a scholarship to Wayland Baptist College in Plainview, Texas. He attended for a year before joining his older brother and sister in California. Unruh got a job as a sheet metal worker at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Santa Monica for several years before enlisting in the Navy in 1942. He spent most of his tour of duty in the Aleutian Islands and was honorably discharged in 1945.

Returning to the Los Angeles area after the end of World War II, Unruh used the educational benefits of the GI Bill of Rights to attend the University of Southern California majoring in journalism and political science. He graduated in 1948 and then completed one year of graduate school towards a master's degree in economics. While still a college student, Unruh made his first attempt to win a seat in the State Assembly but lost. He lost again in his second bid in 1952, but ran a third time in 1954 and finally won.

As a freshman legislator in 1955, Unruh quickly learned the inner workings of the Legislature allying himself with the new speaker and other powerful members, and securing a committee vice-chairmanship. By 1957, he was chairman of the Assembly Finance and Insurance Committee, and by 1959, he was named chairman of the most powerful Assembly committee - Ways and Means - the committee that hears all bills affecting the budget.

Jesse Unruh was elected Speaker of the Assembly on his 39th birthday, Sept. 30, 1961. Unruh's autocratic style as Speaker and his physical size earned him the nickname "Big Daddy". In 1963, he famously locked uncooperative Republicans in the Assembly chambers overnight to force a vote on a school finance bill. After this unfortunate episode, Unruh literally transformed himself losing 90 lbs over a four-month period and adopting a more conciliatory style.

While Unruh will probably be remembered best as a skilled and powerful politician, he authored several significant pieces of legislation. These include the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Stats 1959, c.1866), which banned discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ancestry, or national origin by all business establishments many years ahead of federal civil rights legislation and the Unruh Credit Regulation Act (Stats 1959, c.201) protecting consumers against unscrupulous credit practices. Other major bills include the Miller-Unruh Basic Reading Act (Stats 1965, c.1233) to address reading problems in elementary schools, and legislation which created the California Arts Commission (Stats 1963, c.1742). Unruh also authored a number of major school finance bills and played a key role in ensuring the passage of the Rumford Fair Housing Act (Stats 1963, c.1853) which prohibited discrimination in housing, and the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (Stats 1967, c.1667) which radically changed the delivery of mental health care in California.

Unruh was also responsible for professionalizing the Legislature. Concerned that the legislative agenda was largely dictated by the Governor, and that legislators were underpaid and their offices understaffed, he actively campaigned for the passage of Proposition 1A in 1966, which allowed the Legislature to meet full-time, set its own salaries, and hire expert staff.

Recognized nationally as a major figure in California politics, Unruh headed the state level presidential campaigns for John F. Kennedy (Southern California chair), Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Robert F. Kennedy. Unruh was with Senator Kennedy the night he was assassinated, standing next to him in the Ambassador Hotel ballroom as he spoke to supporters upon winning the California presidential primary. When Kennedy exited the ballroom through the hotel kitchen where he was shot, Unruh was not far behind. He helped subdue the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, and rode with him in the squad car to police headquarters.

Unruh lost the speakership when the Democrats lost their majority in the Legislature in the 1968 elections. Only Willie Brown has held the office longer (1981-1995). Unruh was elected Assembly Minority Floor Leader at the beginning of the 1969 session. In 1970, Unruh, who had been eyeing the office of Governor for years, finally decided to run. He faced a formidable opponent in popular incumbent Ronald Reagan. Unruh's campaign got off to a slow start lacking in both focus and campaign contributions. While he lost to Reagan by 8 points, his campaign's get-out-the-vote efforts helped Democrats regain control of the Assembly.

Out of political office, Unruh tried teaching and reporting but ultimately returned to public life making an ill-fated decision to run for Mayor of Los Angeles in 1973. He finished third behind City Councilman Tom Bradley and incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty in the primary. Bradley went on to win the run-off. When State Treasurer Ivy Baker Priest announced that she would not seek a third term, Unruh decided to run for this relatively low-profile statewide office and won easily. As State Treasurer, Unruh made his mark playing a role in the establishment of the California Housing Finance Agency which used revenue bonds to finance the construction of low-income housing. As an ex-officio member of the Public Employees Retirement System and the State Teachers Retirement System, California's two largest public pension funds, Unruh became concerned about the effect of corporate takeovers on the funds' investments. Together with pension fund managers from several other states, he founded the Council of Institutional Investors marking the beginning of the modern shareholder rights movement. The Council continues to influence corporate policy today and now includes more than 140 public, union and corporate pension funds.

Unruh was married to Virginia June Lemon in 1943, and had five children: Bruce, Bradley, Robert, Randall, and Linda Lu. They divorced in 1975 and he married Chris Edwards in 1986. Unruh was a member of the American Legion, Crenshaw, Southside and Inglewood Chambers of Commerce, National Urban League, and Navy League. He was a recipient of a Chubb Fellowship from Yale University in 1962, a consultant to the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University for many years, and received an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Southern California in 1967. Unruh died of cancer, August 4, 1987, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.

According to the California Legislature at Sacramento (Handbooks), the Final Calendar of Legislative Business, Assembly Final History, and the California Bluebook, Unruh served on the following committees (see note below):

From the finding aid for Jesse M. Unruh Papers 1957-1987 (California State Archives )

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