Jesse M. Unruh rose from an impoverished childhood to become one of the most powerful people in the history of California politics in a political career spanning four decades, during which he served as Speaker of the California State Assembly and later as Treasurer of California.
After serving in the Navy and the Army during World War II, Jesse Unruh headed for Los Angeles and enrolled in the University of Southern California, from which he graduated in 1948 with a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism. After two unsuccessful attempts, Unruh was first elected to the California State Assembly from Inglewood in 1954. He rose quickly and was elected Speaker of the Assembly in 1961. He held that position for seven and a half years, longer than any previous Speaker. As Speaker, Unruh led the transformation of the State Legislature from a part-time body to one that was a equal in power to the Governor.
While in the Assembly, Jesse Unruh authored the Unruh Credit Regulation Act to protect consumers and the Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959, which prohibits discrimination by businesses that offer services to the public. He also authored major legislation to reform educational programs. He was the lead author of the first property tax relief act in California and successfully passed the first detailed campaign disclosure act for public officials.
In 1970, Unruh gave up his Assembly seat to run for Governor, losing the general election to the popular candidate Ronald Reagan. In 1973, Unruh ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Los Angeles, losing to Tom Bradley. He was easily elected California Treasurer in 1974 and served three terms in that office until his death from cancer in 1987.
During his tenure as Treasurer, Unruh vastly expanded the role of the Treasurer's office by asserting the Treasurer's power over numerous boards and commissions that controlled millions of dollars of State revenues. In 1977, Unruh established the Local Agency Investment Fund (LAIF) which is "an investment alternative for California's local governments and special districts. Since 1977, when it was established the LAIF has grown from 293 participants and $468 million to 2,750 participants and $19.8 billion in 2004." In 1978, Unruh publicly called the State's budget surplus "obscene," giving credibility to the property tax reform movement that resulted in the passage of Proposition 13.
The mission of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics is to motivate students to become active in the world of politics and encourage public officials to participate in the daily life of USC.