Caption: “The University of Southern California, 1947.” Closeup of the Tommy Trojan statue. As the camera pulls back, we hear then see a young man addressing a crowd: “FDR gave us the GI Bill because we put our lives on the line to defend democracy in Europe and the Pacific, but now we’re here at USC and there’s no democracy, just frat boys running everything. Why isn’t there a seat at the table for independent students? Veterans need a seat in student government!” The camera keeps pulling back and finds Unruh and a friend at the back of the crowd. Unruh: “These activists must have a martyr complex. They love to lose. I know how to get things done.”
Cut to a posh meeting room. An offscreen voice calls roll as the camera moves down a line of slick-looking frat boys, identical except for the letters on their cardigans, until it stops at Unruh: “Jesse Unruh, independent students representative.” Opening credits.
It’s 1959. Unruh is now a Member of the State Assembly and a rising star of California politics. We see him making deals and soliciting contributions. He’s eager to build his power, but to also use it for good. We see him pass the Unruh Credit Reporting Act, which capped interest rates and required full disclosure of account fees to consumers, then the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, disability, and medical condition. Finally, he is side-by-side with JFK, leading his campaign in California.
It’s 1963. Unruh is now Assembly Speaker. He is also significantly heavier, closing in on 290 pounds, and is widely known by the nickname “Big Daddy.” He continues to relish his role as power broker, enjoying both the opportunity to pass good laws and the prestige and luxuries of the position. He is a true player. His mottos include “money is the mother’s milk of politics” and “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.” Although Sacramento is full of sex workers, Unruh does not partake, but he does hit on every woman who crosses his path, and his power more than compensates for his looks.
He is about to overplay his hand, at least politically. He has written a bill to change how California’s schools are funded, to allocate resources based on students’ needs rather than the property values in each school district. In order to keep rich homeowners from organizing against it, he plans to release the bill and force a vote before most legislators have a chance to even read it. This strategy has worked in the past, but a new group of anti-establishment Republicans refuse to vote for the State budget until they see his school funding bill. Unruh, furious and fueled by alcohol and “diet pills,” locks the legislators in the Capitol until they pass his budget, but they call his bluff by turning the lock-in into a boozy all-night poker party. Unruh folds on school funding reform.
A backlash to the Unruh Civil Rights Act is also underway. In 1963, William Rumford, the first African-American California Assembly Member, wrote and passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which specifically banned racial discrimination in housing. The California Real Estate Association, who believed the value of housing was threatened by desegregation, sponsored Proposition 14 to amend the State Constitution to allow discrimination. Proposition 14 passed in 1964, then was thrown out by the State Supreme Court.
In 1966, Republicans run a mediocre actor: Ronald Reagan, for Governor, against Edmund “Pat” Brown, with a campaign based on that for Prop. 14. Reagan represents the new Goldwater Republicans who had tanked Unruh’s school funding reform. Brown does not take the campaign seriously until it is too late, publicly mocking the idea of an inexperienced entertainer entering politics at a high level, and Unruh refuses to endorse Brown unless he supports Unruh’s ballot measure to amend the California constitution to make serving in the legislature a full-time job. Pulling out all the stops, Unruh gets both Reagan and Brown to endorse his measure. It passes, but Reagan wins and Brown calls Unruh “the architect of my defeat.”
It’s 1968: Unruh has peaked as a power broker. After witnessing anti-war protestors being beaten by the LAPD during LBJ’s visit to LA, we see him help convince Robert F. Kennedy to enter the Presidential race, despite threats from powerful Johnson supporters including Pat Brown and Lew Wasserman. He leads RFK’s campaign in California, and we see him pull Kennedy away from adoring but out-of-control fans, then witness RFK’s assassination the night of his primary victory. Unruh helps to restrain the killer: Sirhan Sirhan, and keeps the crowd from tearing him apart in revenge. Unruh and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley try unsuccessfully to get Ted Kennedy to replace his brother, then Nixon is victorious.
1970: Unruh leaves the Assembly to run for Governor against Reagan. He is one of the first prominent Democrats to move to the right to court Reagan voters, backing away from his early progressive achievements to now argue that antipoverty programs had failed and civil rights laws had alienated suburban white men. Powerful Democrats withhold their support as payback for him not backing Brown and Johnson, and he loses, but it is the narrowest victory of Reagan’s career.
Early 1980s: Unruh is State Treasurer. We see him explaining to a reporter that people did not understand why he wanted the job in 1975 but that no one had realized California is both a huge investor and a major issuer of bonds, that it could wield great power in the financial markets, and that he has realized this potential. He boasts that no public official has more influence in the US economy except the Secretary of the Treasury, but wonders if there is still a higher purpose for him, noting that Churchill was in his sixties when he became Prime Minister.
Card: Jesse Unruh died in 1987, aged 64, still California State Treasurer. He refused surgery for prostate cancer because he feared losing his sexual potency. The State Treasurer’s building and the Institute for Politics at USC are now named in his honor.
I admit my film treatment needs work. I did not write this to join the Westside legion of would-be screenwriters but for three other reasons. First, although he was one of the most important people in California politics in the sixties and seventies, Unruh seems underappreciated now. He is not mentioned in Manuel Pastor’s otherwise fantastic State of Resistance, which tells a story of California housing law from Rumford to Reagan. He does make a short but important appearance in Kevin Starr’s Golden Dreams, focused on his Civil Rights Act and its repercussions, but Starr left a gap from 1964-1989 in his multivolume California Dreams history series. A definitive 2008 biography of Unruh by journalist Bill Boyarsky is still in print, and I highly recommend it.
Second, the story of the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the Rumford Fair Housing Act, Proposition 14, and the 1966 California Governor’s election exemplifies three principles of modern American historical interpretation: it’s always about race, it’s always about housing, and Reagan made it worse. I am only half-joking. Try it and you will see.
Last, and most immediately relevant, I want to return to Unruh’s motto: “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.” Colorful (and sexist) details aside, this is the familiar claim that politicians can take all the money offered: donations from fossil fuel or tobacco companies, banks, landlords, developers, insurance companies, for-profit healthcare, police and prison guard associations, Jeffrey Epstein, Ed Buck, Michael Corleone, Stringer Bell, Voldemort, etcetera, without compromising their integrity. Taking the money is not only fine, it is necessary, because -traditional politicians argue- our opponents will take more and worse, promising to vote against their benefactors. We often hear versions of this from candidates seeking our endorsement.
There have been increasingly serious challenges to this assumption. Jerry Brown’s 1992 Presidential campaign centered on a critique of money in politics; he refused to accept more than $100 from any donor and fundraised with an 800 number in the pre-eCommerce era. More recently, Bernie Sanders mastered the small-donor campaign and inspired further improvements by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kenneth Mejia, and other rising political stars. Unruh asked us to trust him to vote against the people he had been partying with the night before, but Bernie and his protegees aren’t going to that party.
Activists have been working within the California Democratic Party’s caucuses to encourage candidates and the Party to reject dirty money. The Environmental Caucus asks candidates to pledge to reject fossil fuel money, while the Progressive Caucus holds “corporate free” events, where candidates who accept donations from businesses are barred from the mic. At the 2019 California Democratic Convention then-Regional Director Hene Kelly called the Party out for taking money from the vape company Juul, which violated its own ban on tobacco money, and from union-busting companies such as Lyft, Uber, and AirB&B. In 2021 a coalition of caucuses worked in solidarity with the Sunrise Movement and Black Lives Matter to attempt to prohibit the Party from accepting fossil fuel and police money. Even if we can trust our candidates and elected officials to not engage in direct quid pro quo with donors, they still might reasonably be reluctant to offend a “stakeholder.”
Boyarsky begins his book with the obvious comparison between Unruh and Lyndon Johnson, arguing that both men’s dedication to power politics rather than moral purity enabled them to achieve great things. This is a provocative thesis, but one which Unruh’s early career seems to support.
Since the Good Government movement of the Progressive Era, there has been an assumption that social change required systemic change, that just laws could not get passed unless campaign finance was reformed and cronyism, nepotism, favor-trading, and other forms of corruption confronted. If decisions are made on the merits,in the light of day, justice will prevail. Good Government advocates were mocked as “goo-goos,” as if only a baby would expect ethical conduct from public officials and cynicism was maturity. Unruh adopted this hard-boiled attitude early on, when he turned away from the grassroots GI activists at USC.
Boyarsky praises Unruh as one of the last great moderates, but the moderation he describes is in process, not in policy. The Unruh Civil Rights Act was one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in US history, and the Chamber of Commerce would declare the Unruh Credit Reporting Act a “job-killer” if it was proposed today. Unruh’s anger at the injustices committed against the working class and people of color was as strong as anyone’s, and the legislation he created was uncompromising. What Boyarsky calls “moderation” he later more accurately calls cynicism, the understanding that, no matter how hard politicians fight for their agendas, it’s all in the game. Powerless people may suffer because of the outcomes of votes, but at the end of the day the legislators all go to the bar together, lobbyists pick up the check, and the system carries on. Boyarsky ends his book lamenting that cynicism like Unruh’s is now “seen as a mistake rather than a virtue.”
That was twenty-five years ago, at the end of George W. Bush’s second term. Arnold Schwarzenegger was California Governor. Neither the recall which put Schwarzenegger in office nor the scorched-earth tactics of the Bush/Cheney regime, who declared war on reality itself, would seem to represent that amicable cynicism. George Deukmejian, the last Governor Unruh served under, struck him as a far-right ideologue, but Deukmejian would struggle for support in today’s MAGA-GOP. Economic inequality has grown significantly since Unruh’s time, particularly at the top. Combined with the ongoing deregulation of campaign finance by the Roberts/Thomas Court, exemplified by the Citizens United ruling that donations are constitutionally protected speech, the ability of the extremely rich to distort politics has increased tremendously at every level. On the other hand, insurgent campaigns such as Bernie’s and Kenneth Mejia’s have shown that alternatives are available. We can fight for a cleaner political system and encourage people-powered campaigns. Cynicism presents acceptance of the status quo as sophistication, but in order to survive we must keep hope alive.