Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Jesse M. Unruh

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. Click Here to read Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics at

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.

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 Convention in Chicago.

Unruh left the legislature to run unsuccessfully for Governor against Ronald Reagan in 1970 and ran, again unsuccessfully, for Mayor of Los Angeles in 1973. He was elected State Treasurer in 1974 and served from 1975 until his death from prostate cancer on August 4, 1987.

The University of Southern California Department of Political Science includes the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

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