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Inventory of the Jesse M. Unruh Papers
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • State Assembly, 1955-1970
  • Scope and Content
  • Related Material
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Jesse M. Unruh Papers
    Dates: 1957-1987
    Collection number: LP236
    Creator: Jesse M. Unruh, California Legislator
    Collection Size: 85 cubic feet
    Repository: California State Archives
    Sacramento, California
    Abstract: Jesse M. Unruh was first elected to represent the 65th Assembly district in 1954, and served until 1970, when he left office to run for Governor of California. He was Assembly Speaker from 1961-1968, and Assembly Minority Floor Leader from 1969-1970. The Jesse M. Unruh Papers consist of 63 cubic feet of textual records and 22 boxes of audiovisual records reflecting Unruh's legislative activities during his 15-year career in the State Assembly, and his involvement in various political campaigns (his own and others').
    Physical location: California State Archives
    Languages: Languages represented in the collection: English

    Administrative Information


    Collection is open for research.
    A small number of files are restricted per California Civil Code 1798 et seq.: Information Practices Act (IPA).

    Publication Rights

    For permission to reproduce or publish, please contact the California State Archives. Permission for reproduction or publication is given on behalf of the California State Archives as the owner of the physical items. The researcher assumes all responsibility for possible infringement which may arise from reproduction or publication of materials from the California State Archives collections.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Jesse M. Unruh Papers, LP236:[Folder Number], California State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Sacramento, California.

    Alternative Form of Materials Available

    Selected film, videotapes, and audio recordings from this collection were digitized as part of the "California Light and Sound" collection through the California Audiovisual Preservation Project (CAVPP). To learn more about how this material was digitized, please visit the CAVPP website .

    Acquisition and Custodial History

    The California State Archives acquired the Jesse M. Unruh Papers following his death.


    Jesse Marvin Unruh, Democrat, was a State Assembly Member from 1955-1970, representing the 65th Assembly District in Los Angeles County until 1970. The 65th Assembly District included the cities of Inglewood and Hawthorne. He served as Assembly Speaker from 1961-1969, and Assembly Minority Floor Leader from 1969-1970.
    Unruh was born in Newton, Kansas on September 30, 1922, the youngest of five children. His parents were impoverished German-Mennonite sharecroppers who moved to Texas when Unruh was seven. Although his parents were illiterate, he did well in school graduating at the top of his high school class in 1939 and securing a scholarship to Wayland Baptist College in Plainview, Texas. He attended for a year before joining his older brother and sister in California. Unruh got a job as a sheet metal worker at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Santa Monica for several years before enlisting in the Navy in 1942. He spent most of his tour of duty in the Aleutian Islands and was honorably discharged in 1945.
    Returning to the Los Angeles area after the end of World War II, Unruh used the educational benefits of the GI Bill of Rights to attend the University of Southern California majoring in journalism and political science. He graduated in 1948 and then completed one year of graduate school towards a master's degree in economics. While still a college student, Unruh made his first attempt to win a seat in the State Assembly but lost. He lost again in his second bid in 1952, but ran a third time in 1954 and finally won.
    As a freshman legislator in 1955, Unruh quickly learned the inner workings of the Legislature allying himself with the new speaker and other powerful members, and securing a committee vice-chairmanship. By 1957, he was chairman of the Assembly Finance and Insurance Committee, and by 1959, he was named chairman of the most powerful Assembly committee - Ways and Means - the committee that hears all bills affecting the budget.
    Jesse Unruh was elected Speaker of the Assembly on his 39th birthday, Sept. 30, 1961. Unruh's autocratic style as Speaker and his physical size earned him the nickname "Big Daddy". In 1963, he famously locked uncooperative Republicans in the Assembly chambers overnight to force a vote on a school finance bill. After this unfortunate episode, Unruh literally transformed himself losing 90 lbs over a four-month period and adopting a more conciliatory style.
    While Unruh will probably be remembered best as a skilled and powerful politician, he authored several significant pieces of legislation. These include the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Stats 1959, c.1866), which banned discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ancestry, or national origin by all business establishments many years ahead of federal civil rights legislation and the Unruh Credit Regulation Act (Stats 1959, c.201) protecting consumers against unscrupulous credit practices. Other major bills include the Miller-Unruh Basic Reading Act (Stats 1965, c.1233) to address reading problems in elementary schools, and legislation which created the California Arts Commission (Stats 1963, c.1742). Unruh also authored a number of major school finance bills and played a key role in ensuring the passage of the Rumford Fair Housing Act (Stats 1963, c.1853) which prohibited discrimination in housing, and the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (Stats 1967, c.1667) which radically changed the delivery of mental health care in California.
    Unruh was also responsible for professionalizing the Legislature. Concerned that the legislative agenda was largely dictated by the Governor, and that legislators were underpaid and their offices understaffed, he actively campaigned for the passage of Proposition 1A in 1966, which allowed the Legislature to meet full-time, set its own salaries, and hire expert staff.
    Recognized nationally as a major figure in California politics, Unruh headed the state level presidential campaigns for John F. Kennedy (Southern California chair), Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Robert F. Kennedy. Unruh was with Senator Kennedy the night he was assassinated, standing next to him in the Ambassador Hotel ballroom as he spoke to supporters upon winning the California presidential primary. When Kennedy exited the ballroom through the hotel kitchen where he was shot, Unruh was not far behind. He helped subdue the assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, and rode with him in the squad car to police headquarters.
    Unruh lost the speakership when the Democrats lost their majority in the Legislature in the 1968 elections. Only Willie Brown has held the office longer (1981-1995). Unruh was elected Assembly Minority Floor Leader at the beginning of the 1969 session. In 1970, Unruh, who had been eyeing the office of Governor for years, finally decided to run. He faced a formidable opponent in popular incumbent Ronald Reagan. Unruh's campaign got off to a slow start lacking in both focus and campaign contributions. While he lost to Reagan by 8 points, his campaign's get-out-the-vote efforts helped Democrats regain control of the Assembly.
    Out of political office, Unruh tried teaching and reporting but ultimately returned to public life making an ill-fated decision to run for Mayor of Los Angeles in 1973. He finished third behind City Councilman Tom Bradley and incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty in the primary. Bradley went on to win the run-off. When State Treasurer Ivy Baker Priest announced that she would not seek a third term, Unruh decided to run for this relatively low-profile statewide office and won easily. As State Treasurer, Unruh made his mark playing a role in the establishment of the California Housing Finance Agency which used revenue bonds to finance the construction of low-income housing. As an ex-officio member of the Public Employees Retirement System and the State Teachers Retirement System, California's two largest public pension funds, Unruh became concerned about the effect of corporate takeovers on the funds' investments. Together with pension fund managers from several other states, he founded the Council of Institutional Investors marking the beginning of the modern shareholder rights movement. The Council continues to influence corporate policy today and now includes more than 140 public, union and corporate pension funds.
    Unruh was married to Virginia June Lemon in 1943, and had five children: Bruce, Bradley, Robert, Randall, and Linda Lu. They divorced in 1975 and he married Chris Edwards in 1986. Unruh was a member of the American Legion, Crenshaw, Southside and Inglewood Chambers of Commerce, National Urban League, and Navy League. He was a recipient of a Chubb Fellowship from Yale University in 1962, a consultant to the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University for many years, and received an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Southern California in 1967. Unruh died of cancer, August 4, 1987, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.
    According to the California Legislature at Sacramento (Handbooks), the Final Calendar of Legislative Business, Assembly Final History, and the California Bluebook, Unruh served on the following committees (see note below):

    State Assembly, 1955-1970

    • Standing and Interim Committees
    • Industrial Relations, 1955-1958
    • *Vice Chair, 1955-1956
    • Education, 1955-1956
    • Finance and Insurance, 1955-1961
    • *Chair, 1957-1958
    • Conservation, Planning and Public Works, 1955-1958
    • Manufacturing, Oil and Mining Industry, 1957-1961
    • Judiciary, 1958
    • Ways and Means, 1959-1961
    • *Chair, 1959-1961
    • Revenue and Taxation, 1959-1960
    • Elections and Reapportionment, 1961
    • Engrossment and Enrollment, 1963-1968
    • General Research, 1963-1966
    • Interstate Co-operation, 1962-1970
    • Legislative Representation, 1967-1968
    • Agriculture, 1969
    • Natural Resources and Conservation, 1969
    • Intergovernmental Relations, 1969-1970
    • Subcommittees Committees
    • Subcommittee on Beaches and Parks, 1958
    • Subcommittee on Lending and Fiscal Agencies, 1958
    • Subcommittee on Destruction or Other Distribution of Surplus State Textbooks, 1961
    • *Chair, 1961
    • Joint Committees
    • Joint Interim Legislative Tax Committee, 1957-1958
    • Joint Interim Legislative Audit Committee, 1959-1960
    • Joint Interim Legislative Budget Committee, 1959-1961
    • Joint Interim Tidelands Committee, 1964-1966
    • *Chair, 1964-1966
    • Joint Interim Higher Education Committee, 1965-1970
    • *Chair, 1965-1968
    • Joint Interim Public Domain Committee, 1967-1968
    • Additional Committees
    • Senate Apportionment Study Commission, 1961-1962
    • California State Colleges, Board of Trustees, 1961-1968
    • California Commission on Interstate Co-operation, 1962-1964
    • National Conference of State Legislative Leaders, 1965-1970
    • *President, 1965-1966
    • Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1969-1970
    • National Advisory Committee on Highway Safety, 1967
    • Citizens Conference on State Legislatures, Trustee, 1967
    Note: Unruh served as Assembly Speaker, 1961-1969 and Assembly Minority Leader, 1969-1970. As Speaker of the Assembly, Unruh was an ex-officio member of all Assembly Standing, Joint, and Interim Committees.

    Scope and Content

    The Jesse M. Unruh Papers consist of 85 cubic feet of records documenting Unruh's activities during his 15-year Assembly career, and his involvement in various political campaigns (his own and others'). The records are divided into five sub-groups: Legislative Files, 1959-1970; Speaker's Office Files, 1957-1970; Political Files, 1958-1973; Los Angeles Office Files, 1959-1987; and, Audiovisual Materials, 1955-1987. The bulk of the materials are textual (63 cubic feet) and the remaining 22 cubic feet are various audiovisual materials including photographs, audiotapes, videotapes, and motion picture film. Although these records overlap with the time period during which Unruh served as State Treasurer (1975-1987), they include only a few records originating from that office. (For records of the State Treasurer's office during Unruh's administration, see Accession 94-07-32, State Treasurer-Executive, Jesse M. Unruh Papers and Artifacts.)
    Unruh's legislative bill files reflect his interest in consumer protection, civil rights, the oil industry, education and school finance. Unfortunately, some early legislative files were destroyed by a district office fire and records concerning the Unruh Civil Rights Act are minimal. Records from his terms as Assembly Speaker are quite detailed with files created for individual legislative committees, legislators, and boards and commissions upon which legislators served. An almost complete run of speeches and press conferences exist including both recordings and transcripts. The papers of Chief of Staff Larry Margolis, which are part of this collection, demonstrate his key role in the Speaker's Office.
    Probably the most significant portion of the collection concerns Unruh's political activities. His campaigns for Governor in 1970 and for Mayor of Los Angeles in 1973 are extensively documented. For the gubernatorial campaign, his staff thoroughly researched and developed "issue files" for Unruh and his opponents, incumbent Governor Ronald Reagan and San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, creating political biographies, and collecting and organizing by topic newspapers clippings and other documents. Unruh's involvement in local, state, and national politics - particularly, the 1968 presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy - is also emphasized.
    Files from his Los Angeles office, span almost his entire political career up until his death in 1987 while he still held the office of State Treasurer. Letters and memorials from his friends and colleagues after his death make up a large part of these records. Of the audiovisual materials in the collection, the photographs are the most significant. The majority concern political activities and depict Unruh with well-known state and national political figures of the 1960's.

    Related Material

    Larry Margolis*, Oral History Interview, conducted 1989 by Carole Hicke, Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley. State Government Oral History Program, California State Archives, OH 90-35.
    Phillip H. Schott*, Oral History Interview, conducted 1989 by Carole Hicke, Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley. State Government Oral History Program, California State Archives, OH 92-2.
    Phillip H. Schott*, Oral History Interview, conducted 1989 by Carole Hicke, Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley. State Government Oral History Program, California State Archives, OH 92-2.
    Various oral histories of former state legislators such as John L. Burton, Jerome R. Waldie, Kenneth Cory, Nicholas C. Petris, and Victor Veysey include discussions of Jesse Unruh and legislative politics during the 1950's and 1960's. See California State Archives online catalog MINERVA http://minerva.sos.ca.gov for additional information.
    Boyarsky, Bill. Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2008.
    Cannon, Lou. Ronnie and Jessie: A Political Odyssey. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. 1969.
    Cannon, Lou. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power. New York: Public Affairs. 2003.
    *Margolis and Schott were on Unruh's staff.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
    Unruh, Jesse M.
    Unruh, Jesse, 1922-1987
    Kennedy, Robert F., 1925-1968
    Reagan, Ronald
    Brown, Edmund G. (Edmund Gerald), 1905-1996
    Legislative bodies--Reform
    Discrimination--Law and legislation