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California's 'Duke'

At the Egyptian Pharmacy in Belmont Shore, near Long Beach, owner Bob Wilson is an old friend of George Deukmejian. ''The family trades in here all the time, '' he says.

George Deukmejian is the man Ronald Reagan wants to win what is arguably the second-most important elected office in the country, the office that sprung Mr. Reagan into the presidency, the California governorship.

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Bob Wilson recounts: ''I asked Gloria, his wife, one time, 'What do we call you when you're the governor's wife?' She said, 'Gloria.' ''

That's just how the Deukmejians are, Mr. Wilson insists. Down to earth.

Common-sensical George ''Duke'' Deukmejian - today a tough state attorney general, once a conservative longtime state legislator - is an ordinary fellow who lives right.

Mr. Deukmejian is not larger than life. He is no spell-binding podium shaker, and the fire of political ambition does not light his brown eyes or charge his gestures. When he walks into a room, one is instantly at ease. It would be easy to forget who he is, to forget the demands of the campaign on his time, and ask him for advice or tell him a meandering story.

But Duke is important enough to the Reagan administration that the big guns are being hauled out in his support. For the President, it's a battle to win his home turf and his ultimate base of support over to friendly hands after eight years of Democratic reins.

Reagan himself appeared at an August fund-raiser that raised $1.3 million, a record event for California state office seekers.

The Republicans don't have good field position, though. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley led Deukmejian by 9 percent in the latest California Poll. But no one thinks this battle won't be close.

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For Deukmejian, this is a battle for the world according to GOP where, for better or worse, people get what they have earned. Businessmen are free to succeed and criminals are brought to justice.

Duke is a Republican, not of high philosophy nor backroom politics, but of basic sensibilities - living right, fulfilling commitments, pulling one's weight , and doing one's job.

A family man with three teen-aged children, George Deukmejian has lived in the same house in Belmont Shore for more than 20 years. He has been a pillar of the local Lions Club for around a quarter of a century.

A fellow member of All Saints Episcopal Church in Long Beach can hardly remember a Sunday when the Deukmejians weren't there. Since his election as attorney general in 1978, Deukmejian has also been a lay reader and a regular Sunday School teacher.

His longtime friends and neighbors always cite a list of local organizations he has helped support over the years: YMCA, Boy Scouts, Belmont Shore Business Association, chamber of commerce, and so forth.

''His wife, Gloria,'' says Mr. Wilson of the Egyptian Pharmacy, which is a few blocks from the Deukmejian place, ''there's no uppish about her. It's an entirely different sort of family than the usual political sort of family.''

Deukmejian's political foes don't argue about one thing: his competence and integrity. In 4 years as attorney general, 12 as state senator, and 4 as state assemblyman, he has gained broad respect.

But his detractors resent him more now, as a tough and single-minded attorney general, than they did when he was as a staunch conservative leader in the Legislature.

Any chart of Deukmejian's career would make a very straight line, no twists, turns, or sudden shifts. Twenty years ago - when Duke was a young lawyer running for his first public office, a state Assembly seat - a close friend and ally, Paul Deats, told Gloria Deukmejian that her husband would be governor by the time he was 55 years old. Deukmejian is now 54, and his wife recently sent the friend a note reminding him of the prediction.

''I'm not sure George would have agreed with me,'' Mr. Deats says of his forecast. ''I don't think he ever went into any job with his eye on the next one.'' Others recall George homing his aspirations on the attorney general post as early as 1960.

But whether or not the Deukmejian career had a plan, it always had a theme. The work he has committed himself to, with great consistency, has been making life harder for criminals.

He has been frustrated. And this frustration has supplied the impetus for his gubernatorial campaign.

Fairly or unfairly, there is a feeling in this state that the black-robed judges sitting in the courts are preventing justice from being done - that criminals are being coddled, that felons are being dumped back onto the streets.

This is George Deukmejian's issue.

This is his hard-edged side. He was author of 180 anticrime bills that became law during his legislative career, including California's death-penalty statute and the so-called ''use a gun, go to prison'' law.

His frustration is with judges and the courts. ''The judicial system, ''our court system, is just not doing the job it was intended to do, he says.''

This frustration is widespread in California. While crime ranks second only to unemployment among the public's gravest concerns here, trust in judges and the courts is pathetically low. The California Poll ranks the judiciary down with the CIA and big oil companies for trustworthiness - well below most other branches of government.

The problem, as Deukmejian sees it, is that Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed judges more concerned with protecting the rights of the accused than with protecting the public from criminals.

The most controversial example is state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird , a liberal and an activist. Deukmejian is anything but a Bird supporter. But he has refrained from joining the drive to oust her because he believes that a judge should be impeached only for malfeasance in office.

But he is eager to appoint more conservative judges. Four of the seven justices on the state Supreme Court are up for voter confirmation this year. One was appointed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, the other three by Governor Brown. Deukmejian wants the latter trio turned out of office.

This would give him, if elected, the chance to appoint three judges that, along with the Reagan appointee, would make up a conservative majority on the bench.

''Bird is not on the ballot this time,'' he says, in his Los Angeles office. ''I wish she were, but she's not.''

Not everyone is as comfortable with making judges a political issue, as Republican candidates have done in this campaign. Loyola Law School Prof. Gerald Uelmen calls it opportunism, ''making hay with the public concern over crime.

''It's making judges into political scapegoats, and the only way they can respond is to become more political themselves.''

Deukmejian isn't moved by this politicizing-the-court charge. ''It's the normal elective process, and I see it as perfectly proper to say, in effect, that if the people want a significant change on the (state) Supreme Court, here is the best and most direct way to accomplish it.''

He goes further: ''So in effect really the judges are just politicians. They're a co-equal branch of government.'' He corrects himself. ''They're supposed to be. I don't think as a practical matter they are. But they're supposed to be.'' Voting on judges is the only check people have of their authority, he says.

Here is the nub of the frustration conservatives like Deukmejian say they experience in connection with the courts: Liberal judges both coddle criminals and undermine hard-fought political victories, they say.

''[The court] has indeed encroached on legislative area,'' he says, ''and it has not seen fit to follow the intent expressed by the people on some of the major propositions.''

The death penalty provides an example. Of the 30,000 murders in California in the past 18 years, he says, one convicted murderer has been executed. This means to Deukmejian that the courts are thwarting the will of the people of California , who reaffirmed their support of the death penalty by referendum (a Deukmejian-sponsored initiative in 1972).The death penalty is a symbol as well. ''It not only affects murder cases,'' Deukmejian says, ''but it sends out a very strong, clear message to the criminal element that the state really means business.''

George Deukmejian came to Belmont Shore in 1958 to set up his own law practice. The son of Armenian immigrants, he grew up in upstate New York, and graduated from law school at St. John's University in Brooklyn in 1952. After 16 months in Paris with the US Army's Judge Advocate Corps, he came to Los Angeles where he served briefly as deputy county counsel.

The struggling young lawyer had recently married Gloria Saatjian, whose family lived in the Long Beach area. So an Armenian friend in Los Angeles called a Lions Club contact in Long Beach, Paul Deats, to help the young Deukmejian get set up in Belmont Shore.

The ''Shore'' was sleepier then, not yet the stylish beach community of what pharmacy-owner Wilson calls ''barefoot millionaires.''Deats was then president of the Belmont Shore Business Association, and he gave Deukmejian an association parking-lot case to start him out.

Deukmejian bought an old dry cleaning establishment and turned it into an office, which he shared with two friends.The personable Deukmejian was soon thriving. He became active in the community, and was eager to become even more involved, more visible, with an eye on moving into politics.

In 1960 he wanted to run for Long Beach City Council, but Deats, who was something of a political mentor, talked him out of it. Instead, Deukmejian became campaign manager for Assemblyman Bill Grant's reelection campaign, with the understanding that when Grant retired after the two-year term, he would support Deukmejian as his successor.

George Deukmejian won Bill Grant's seat in the Assembly. This was when the nickname ''Duke'' was peddled in earnest to neutralize the off-putting effect of his difficult name. He also started using the pronunciation guide ''Duke-MAY-gin'' that his campaign stationery still carries.

Four years later he was elected to the state Senate. As a politician, Wilson says, ''he's not on a teeter-totter.''

Wilson once brought some of the then-new generic drugs over to the Deukmejian house and told his friend he didn't feel enough was known about them yet. George agreed, and lobbied against the drugs in the legislature.

Then California pharmacists decided they wanted to sell them, and they asked Wilson to bend the Deukmejian ear again. Duke held firm. ''He said, 'I've lobbied against them, and I'm still against them.'

''That's George,'' says Wilson. ''He's not going to change his position just to get your vote.''

California's capitol press corps named Deukmejian Best All Round Republican Senator in 1967. He was Senate Republican leader his last four years there.

The only race he has so far lost was his first shot at attorney general in 1974. He lost in the primary to Paul Deats's cousin, fellow-Republican Evelle Younger.

If Deukmejian had a weakness as a campaigner, it was his very earnestness. ''He looked too serious,'' says Paul Deats, ''like he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.'' Now he is heeding advice to smile more, and on the platform he shows glimpses of an almost-Reaganlike warmth and sincerity.

There seems to be little doubt about Deukmejian's ideological stripes. ''He stands by his word,'' says Assemblyman Howard Berman of west Los Angeles, an influential liberal Democrat. But he is ''very conservative.''

''He was not within the spectrum of what I would call moderate legislators.'' Was he able to compromise? Yes, says Mr. Berman, ''but he started from a very conservative position.''

In his role as California's chief law-enforcement officer, Deukmejian is viewed as a hard-liner. ''Personally, he's a very pleasant person. So person to person in the legislature you have a softer view than when he is at a distance, '' says Berman.

As attorney general, Deukmejian is at a distance. Only his staff work with him directly, so tough Deukmejian policy is not tempered by the pleasant, easy-going Deukmejian personality ''He's a very tough litigator,'' says Loyola's Professor Uelmen, ''and I guess an attorney general should be tough. But I didn't see that toughness tempered with a sense of fairness.''

This view is reflected by others who feel that under Deukmejian California's justice division is too tough, that its prosecutors won't concede anything on a case, to the point of being rigid and losing credibility.

Deukmejian gets generally high marks as an administrator from the legal community. His department now runs with 200 fewer employees than when he started in 1979. He kept it running efficiently by favoring its traditional responsibilities, especially criminal prosecution.

''He gutted the consumer affairs and environmental divisions,'' notes Uelmen.

Governor Brown has, in fact, had to use his own legal staff to enforce some environmental law. And when the state passed a mandatory collective-bargaining law, the attorney general not only refused to enforce it, but used his department to challenge it.

But if the attorney general can be accused of being too tough, it may be because he views judges as too soft. Three years ago, 85 percent of convicted felons in California were put on some form of probation. Since then, mandatory state prison-sentencing laws have been passed. Now the number of felons sent to prison has doubled. But that's still not enough, Deukmejian says.

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