Jesse Unruh, a devotee of politics and power

`MONEY is the mother's milk of politics,'' quipped Jesse Unruh almost three decades ago. This catch phrase quickly became, and still is, a rallying cry for politicians the nation over.

Mr. Unruh, for 40 years a Democratic state lawmaker - and one-time nationally publicized ``Big Daddy'' of the California Legislature - was disputably this state's second-most influential contemporary political figure, after Ronald Reagan. When he passed away here last week, he was holding the office of state treasurer, a job he reshaped over 13 years into one of California's most important political posts.

In 1985, a prestigious investor magazine suggested that Unruh might be ``the most politically powerful public financial officer outside the US Treasury.'' He controlled billions in state funds, and other states have adopted his investment approach, which substantially protected workers' pension funds.

For Unruh, power was the name of the game. He shamelessly craved it; usually he extolled it; but he often sharply criticized its misuse.

As speaker of the California Assembly in the 1960s, he used his political clout to stretch budget appropriations for education, to push through social legislation to better the plight of the poor, and to reorganize California's Legislature into a full-time professional institution.

Much of his reform came during the gubernatorial reign of Ronald Reagan, Unruh's chief ideological nemesis and longtime political opponent.

The Assembly speaker and the now-occupant of the White House Oval Office were friendly enemies.

When Unruh unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Reagan for the governorship in 1970, he criticized the conservative incumbent as a champion of the rich and privileged who, he claimed, ignored the ``little man'' and didn't understand his problems.

The outspoken, sometimes blustery and earthy-talking Democrat was, however, no competition at the polls for the charismatic Republican. Reagan went on to a second gubernatorial term - afterward he launched his first, albeit losing, bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1976.

Meanwhile, Unruh tried for the mayor's post in Los Angeles. He was defeated, however, by Tom Bradley - who is still mayor.

Unruh was born in humble circumstances, and his parents lost their Kansas wheat farm in the Great Depression. He picked cotton as a child, became the first member of his family to graduate from high school, and later migrated to California, where he put himself through college.

As a state lawmaker, Unruh was devoted to social justice, particularly to bettering the plight of blacks, Mexican-American farm workers, and the underprivileged in general.

He believed his most effective weapons were ``money'' and ``power.''

``Money runs the country,'' he once said. ``The Democrats have been wrong in putting too much emphasis into politics and not enough into money.''

Later in his career he conceded, however, that he personally earned very little money during most of his life. ``Now that I have found out I can make it, it bores me,'' he said.

Unruh much preferred power. He lectured political pros, newly elected lawmakers, and Ivy League students on its importance for success in the public forum.

But he flatly rejected what he said was a press-invented image of himself as a ruthless power-broker. He also warned that politics and political power could become a ``narcotic.''

``Try it and it may hook you,'' he said.

Jesse Unruh had an unusual ability to laugh at himself.

His relationship with Governor Reagan was much like what congressional leader Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill's would later be with President Reagan. They could sharply attack each other's policies, but at the same time maintain mutual respect and goodwill.

In the late 1960s, at a surprise birthday party for the then-governor in the Sacramento Capitol, aides and reporters urged the California chief executive to blow out the candles on his cake and make a wish.

Reagan did so. ``What did you wish?'' he was asked. No matter - said the governor, in mock disappointment. ``It didn't work. He's still here,'' he added, nodding toward Unruh.

Reagan's most formidable nemesis enjoyed a hearty laugh. At Unruh's death the President particularly noted his one-time opponent's devotion to California and the public he served.

A Thursday column

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