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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
Member of the California State Assembly

In office
January 1955 – January 1969
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 well-known American Democratic politician and the California State Treasurer.

Early life[]

Born 1922 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 during 1948.

Political career[]

Unruh's political career began as an unsuccessful candidate for the California State Assembly during 1950 and 1952. He was elected as a member of the Assembly on his third attempt during 1954. During 1956, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Presidential elector for California as a Democrat. 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 during 1960 and 1968.

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

Unruh was California campaign manager for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and a close Kennedy associate throughout his Presidency. He was involved in convincing Robert F. Kennedy to enter the 1968 presidential race and managed his California campaign. After helping Kennedy win the California primary election in June, he was next him when an assassin's bullet ended Kennedy's life while leaving his acceptance speech at the Ambassador Hotel. In the confusion that followed, Unruh helped keep suspect Sirhan Sirhan from the reach of angry Kennedy devotees. After an unsuccessful effort, managed by Unruh and Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, to draft Senator Edward M. Kennedy, as Chair of California's delegation committed to the deceased Kennedy he released California delegates to vote their conscious and announced that he would support Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Unruh left the legislature to campaign unsuccessfully for governor against Ronald Reagan during 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 campaigned for state treasurer during 1974, the post was considered insignificant.[2] Unruh's radio advertisements assured voters, "Make no mistake about it, I really want this job." Once elected, Unruh politicized the office. 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 companies, and Unruh secured campaign contributions in exchange for doing business with them. The New York Times said he had gained control of "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 supervised "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, 8 months into his 4th term as treasurer. Unruh remains the second longest-serving California State Treasurer, excepting only Charles G. Johnson (who served 33 years between 1923 and 1956). The University of Southern California Department of Political Science includes the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

Personal life[]

Unruh's nickname "Big Daddy" apparently derives 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. Another version is that Unruh was given the nickname by Raquel Welch when the two were allegedly romantically involved, though Welch denies the claim. Unruh was a Protestant and belonged to the American Legion. He married twice, and had five children. Unruh died of prostate cancer at his home in Marina Del Rey, California on August 4, 1987.[4] He is buried in Santa Monica, California.


The California State Treasurer’s Building was rededicated and renamed the Jesse M. Unruh State Office Building by Gov. George Deukmejian on August 19, 1987.


On campaign contributions: "Money is the mother's milk of politics." 1966[5]
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."[6][7]

See also[]

  • Glenn E. Coolidge


  1. "Jeff Berg, "The Political Kraft", March 2008". Retrieved June 30, 2013. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Dan Walters (March 2, 1988). "War of Succession for California's Bond Empire". 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Mark Uhlig (August 6, 1987). "Jesse Unruh, a California Political Power, Dies". Retrieved July 12, 2015. 
  4. Kenneth Reich (August 5, 1987). "From the Archives: Jesse Unruh, Key Political Figure in State, Dies at 64". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 19, 2017. 
  5. Lou Cannon. Ronnie and Jesse. p. 99. 
  6. Cannon, Lou (2005). Governor Reagan: his rise to power. Ronald Reagan: A Life in Politics. 1. PublicAffairs. p. 166. ISBN 1-58648-284-X. 
  7. Matthews, Charles (November 11, 2007). "Boyarsky's 'Daddy' tells of politician with a penchant for partying". Retrieved May 10, 2015. 

External links[]

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
Party political offices
Preceded by
Pat Brown
Democratic nominee for
Governor of California

Succeeded by
Jerry Brown

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