Long-time Capitol Lobbyist and Political Mentor Rod Blonien Dies at 65
Rob Blonien, a long-time Sacramento lobbyist who influenced the careers of some of the Capitol’s most powerful players, died March 12 of a heart attack at his Sacramento home. He was 65.
Even-keeled, ebullient and steadfast, Blonien was one of the original triumvirate of top aides to Gov. George Deukmejian after his 1982 election serving first as his legislative secretary and then as undersecretary of the Department of Corrections, spearheading the GOP governor’s prison building program and effectively running the agency.
“Rod lived life everyday,” said Allan Zaremberg, president of the state Chamber of Commerce who was hired by Blonien three times beginning when Zaremberg was a student at Sacramento’s McGeorge School of Law in the mid 1970s.
“He did everything with more zest than probably anybody – on regular basis. More enthusiasm. More energy. Everyday. On every issue.”
After leaving the Deukmejian administration in 1987, Blonien, a horse lover, became a lobbyist. Among whose clients were horseracing interests and the Commerce Club, California’s largest card club.
Both the Commerce Club and Los Alamitos Race Track were clients of Blonien’s and his longtime business partner, Angela Schiele, for more than 20 years. The owners of neither entity would have carried an ineffectual advocate on their payrolls.
Blonien was unflappable, always calm in testifying before committees despite the heat of the opposition.
“He was such a life force,” said Sacramento lobbyist Maureen Higgins who, like Zaremberg, received her first three jobs from Blonien.
Tall and husky with Size 14 shoes, Blonien would routinely break into song, his booming baritone commanding the attention of anyone nearby.
Each year he called Deukmejian on his birthday, singing him “Happy Birthday” – in Italian. If a parking spot was close enough to El Fornaio restaurant on Capitol and 4 St. in Sacrmento, Blonien capped his birthday song to the honoree by activating his car alarm.
Blonien was an inveterate practical joker. At an 80th birthday celebration for Deukmejian in Sacramento, Blonien recounted one of his better put-ons – impersonating Mother Teresa.
The nun was scheduled to call the Republican governor Deukmejian and urge him not to execute Robert Alton Harris whose death penalty appeals had been exhausted. The call was set for a Monday.
On Friday, Blonien, in a frail, wispy voice, called Lorrie Ward, Deukmejian’s gatekeeper, saying he was Mother Teresa.
“I thought you were calling Monday,” Ward said.
“It is Monday here,” Blonien replied. “Please tell Governor Deukmejian to let the no-good bastard fry.”
Blonien also convinced a receptionist at the Department of Justice office in Sacramento that he was a public health official a deadly virus was in the building requiring evacuation. He was convincing enough that he had to call back and say he was kidding.
Blonien’s pranks inspired retirbution. On his birthday, July 20, male coworkers at the Department of Justice, and later the Governor’s Office, were encouraged to wear a pink or salmon shirt to the office. Blonien’s distaste for pink dress shirts was well known.
Born to Janet and Clayton Blonien in Wisconsin Rapids, Blonien stocked the shelves of the family grocery at age 7, graduating to bartender and pin resetter at the family’s bowling alley.
He came west and attended the University of San Francisco where he was an RA and elected student body president.
While a student at Santa Clara Law School, Blonien was a member of the law review.
Among his articles, Parole Revocation Hearings – Pro Justicia or Pro Camera Stellata from 1970. (10 Santa Clara Lawyer, Page 319.)
“The need to improve the nation’s penal system is becoming increasingly recognized,” the article began. “In a recent address, Chief Justice Warren Burger stressed the need for rehabilitation rather than revenge in the penal process. One area which cries out for reform is the parole system.”
Blonien’s work on the law review caught the attention of Ed Meese, Gov. Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff from 1969 to 1974.
When Meese telephoned to offer Blonien a job in the governor’s office, Blonien hung up, assuming it was a prank call.
He became an assistant legal affairs secretary for Reagan, a job he likened to going to Disneyland every day. Among his responsibilities was reading the Republican governor the day’s death threats.
The connection with Deukmejian began when Deukmejian was a state senator and Blonien, the executive director of the California Peace Officers Association.
For years, he referred to Higgins as “Sister Higgins” after an elaborate hoax the two of them pulled on a group of district attorneys over dinner in Monterey.
Blonien told them Higgins had trained to be a nun lived in convent but ultimately didn’t take her vows.
As the district attorneys began peppering her with questions about where she studied and what order she was a member of, Higgins began to play along.
Neither she nor Blonien ever said it was complete fiction.
“For a long time, whenever I’d run into people from that room they’d always introduce me as Sister Higgins.”
At the time, the primary public policy issue was crime and the peace officers association was in the middle of Capitol efforts to reinstate the death penalty.
Deukmejian carried the legislation.
Another bill, sponsored by the peace officers association was the so-called “Use A Gun, Go to Prison” law, also carried by Deukmejian.
When Deukmejian was elected Attorney General in 1978, he asked Blonien to be his legislative director.
Blonien hired two deputies to help him: Higgins and Zaremberg.
When Deukmejian was elected governor, his two top aides from the Attorney General’s office – Mike Franchetti and Steve Merksamer – went with him.
“And Rod will be the legislative secretary,” Deukmejian told them.
After taking the job, Blonien posed for a photo of him in a combat helmet brandishing a baseball bat, ready to “do battle with” the Legislature.
Among Blonien’s innovations were sobriety checkpoints. He reasoned that if agricultural checkpoints were legal other types would pass constitutional muster as well.
Said Merksamer, now a senior partner in a political law firm that bears his name: “Rod never lost his cool. He had a great sense of humor and liked to patch things up with people.”
Deukmejian subsequently asked Blonien to be undersecretary of the state prison system, whose population was growing faster than the amount of cells. To speed construction,Blonien began the use of tilt up, pre-fab construction bringing prisons online in several years rather than a decade.
Among Blonien’s close friends was Don Novey, then head of the state prison guard union.
The union endorsed Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley over Deukmejian in the 1982 gubernatorial race and, after Deukmejian’s victory, Blonien’s task was to bring Novey back to the fold.
He is survived by his wife of 45 years, Noreen, four children and 11 grandchildren.
At the rosary, Blonien’s daughters, Jessica and Molly, presented “Rod’s 12 Commandments,” illustrating each with an anecdote.
- Think Outside the Box
- Suprises Are good
- Take Care of (Your) Family
- Love Your Country
- Love Animals
- Have Fun
- Welcome Everyone to the Party
- Love and Honor Your Spouse
- Work Hard
- Let People Know What They Mean to You
- Honor Your Friends
- Help Others
At Blonien’s funferal mass, long-time family friend, Sarah Ludeman, tailored the Prayers of the People to him:
“Rod Blonien’s life was an example of a life well lived in so many ways and we will always be thankful to God that he was a part of our lives.
“With all that Rod accomplished in his life, whether things went his way or not–he always put God first. May God help us to follow Rod’s example of living a life where faith in God is foremost….We pray to the Lord.
“Rod so greatly loved his family and friends and always made sure they knew it. May this gift of his great love for all of us be felt by us–and may we, as we leave this church today, carry the memory of Rod with us and follow his example of cherishing, appreciating and loving our own family and friends…We pray to the Lord.
“Rod generously shared his gifts so easily with others…and many of us here today have been the recipients of his magnanimous generosity. When Rod saw a need, he acted to help. May the spirit of Rod Blonien serve as an example to all of us to reach out to others–doing as Rod did–not only thinking of helping people, but actually following through…We pray to the Lord.
“And finally, you cannot think of Rod Blonien without remembering his genuine joy of life and his delight in sharing this with others. Rod lit up every room and he had such fun. As we celebrate his wonderful life and cherish our memories of him, may we carry his spirit of joyful living with us…We pray to the Lord.
“For all of us gathered together today– we ask God to keep the Blonien Family surrounded by the warmth of Rod’s memory and the knowledge of our loving care and concern for them…We pray to the Lord”
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