Jesse M. Unruh

Jesse Marvin Unruh (/ˈʌnru/, UN-roo;[1] September 30, 1922 – August 4, 1987), also known as Big Daddy Unruh, was an American politician who served as speaker of the California State Assembly and as the California State Treasurer.

Jesse Unruh
Jesse Unruh 1960s family christmas card (back) (cropped).jpg
26th Treasurer of California
In office
January 6, 1975 – August 4, 1987
GovernorJerry Brown
George Deukmejian
Preceded byIvy Baker Priest
Succeeded byElizabeth Whitney
Minority Leader of the California Assembly
In office
January 1969 – September 1970
Preceded byRobert T. Monagan
Succeeded byRobert T. Monagan
54th Speaker of the California State Assembly
In office
September 1961 – January 1969
Preceded byRalph M. Brown
Succeeded byRobert T. Monagan
Member of the California State Assembly
from the 65th district
In office
January 3, 1955 – January 4, 1971
Preceded byJohn W. Evans
Succeeded byDavid C. Pierson
Personal details
Jesse Marvin Unruh

(1922-09-30)September 30, 1922
Newton, Kansas, U.S.
DiedAugust 4, 1987(1987-08-04) (aged 64)
Marina Del Rey, California, U.S.
Cause of deathProstate cancer
Political partyDemocratic
Virginia June Lemon
(m. 1943; div. 1975)

Chris Edwards
(m. 1986)
EducationUniversity of Southern California (BA)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Navy
Battles/warsWorld War II

Early life and educationEdit

Born 1922 in Newton, Kansas, Unruh served in the United States Navy during World War II. After the war, he enrolled at the University of Southern California, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and journalism in 1948.


California AssemblyEdit

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 for California as a Democrat. In 1959, he wrote 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 in 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.

Campaign workEdit

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 helped convince Senator Robert F. Kennedy to enter the 1968 presidential race and managed his California campaign. Kennedy won the California primary, but was assassinated shortly after his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once described Unruh as "probably one of the most selfish men" he had met in politics.[2]

After an unsuccessful effort, managed by Unruh and Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, to draft Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Unruh released California delegates to vote their conscience 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 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.[3] In 1973, Unruh ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Los Angeles.[4]

California TreasurerEdit

When he campaigned for state treasurer in 1974, the post was considered insignificant.[5] 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".[5] 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."[6] Because as Treasurer he was an 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".[6]

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 behind 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 lifeEdit

Unruh's nickname "Big Daddy" apparently derives from a character in the Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Former Senate President pro Tempore Jim Mills in his book A Disorderly House insists it was given to Unruh by then-Assemblyman Don Allen.

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.[7] 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.

The California State Capitol building's hearing room #4202 currently holds a picture of Jesse M. Unruh.[8]

The California State Assembly Fellowship Program was renamed the Jesse Marvin Unruh Assembly Fellowship Program to honor the former Assembly Speaker and State Treasurer.[9]


On campaign contributions: "Money is the mother's milk of politics." 1966[10]
On lobbyists: "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and then vote against them you've got no business being up here."[11][12] Other versions exist, for instance "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them, you have no business being up here."[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Don Rickles Roast Ronald Reagan" on YouTube
  2. ^ President's Daily Diary entry, 2/4/1968
  3. ^ "Jeff Berg, "The Political Kraft", March 2008". Archived from the original on December 28, 2013. Retrieved June 30, 2013.
  4. ^ Vassar, Alex; Myers, Shane. "Robert T. Monagan". Retrieved March 2, 2023.
  5. ^ a b Dan Walters (March 2, 1988). "War of Succession for California's Bond Empire". The Wall Street Journal.
  6. ^ a b Mark Uhlig (August 6, 1987). "Jesse Unruh, a California Political Power, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "Jesse Unruh: A double standard in the Assembly". Flash Report. Archived from the original on 2008-02-12.
  9. ^ "Assembly Fellowship Program". California State University. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
  10. ^ Lou Cannon. Ronnie and Jesse. p. 99.
  11. ^ Cannon, Lou (August 6, 1987). "Jesse Unruh a 'Big Daddy' Who Gave Politics and Power a Bear Hug". Washington Post.
  12. ^ Cannon, Lou (2005). Governor Reagan: his rise to power. Ronald Reagan: A Life in Politics. Vol. 1. PublicAffairs. p. 166. ISBN 1-58648-284-X.
  13. ^ Matthews, Charles (November 11, 2007). "Boyarsky's 'Daddy' tells of politician with a penchant for partying". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved May 10, 2015.

Further readingEdit

  • Boyarsky, Bill. Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the art of power politics (U of California Press, 2007) online
  • 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.
  • Reich, Kenneth (August 5, 1987). "Jesse Unruh, Key Political Figure in State, Dies at 64". Los Angeles Times.

External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by Speaker of the California State Assembly
September 1961 – January 1969
Succeeded by
Preceded by Treasurer of California
January 6, 1975 – August 4, 1987
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for Governor of California
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Milton G. Gordon
Democratic nominee for Treasurer of California
1974, 1978, 1982, 1986
Succeeded by