California’s Disaster Governor

Most people are familiar with the idea of a line of succession; a series of people who would take over in the event that an official is killed, disabled, or is temporarily absent or unavailable to hold their office. For example, when President Kennedy was assassinated and when President Nixon resigned, their Vice Presidents assumed the empty office.

In California, the line of succession for the Governor starts with the Lieutenant Governor, who sits in the #2 position. In our state, Lieutenant Governors have succeeded to the Governorship seven times (most recently in 1953). After the Lt. Governor, the position transfers (in order) to the Senate President pro Tem, Speaker of the Assembly, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Treasurer, Controller, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Insurance Commissioner, and Chair of the Board of Equalization.

Earl Smittcamp (Courtesy CSU Fresno)

But who takes over if these constitutional officers are killed or missing in a major disaster or nuclear attack? It’s a name you’re not likely to recognize: Earl S. Smittcamp, a 92-year-old frozen food businessman from the farming town of Clovis.

The line of succession beyond these constitutional officers is dictated by an obscure law written in the 1950s at the height of cold war tension amid concerns about an impending nuclear war between the United States and USSR. The law, which remains in effect today as Government Code section 12050-53, requires the Governor to appoint up to seven Disaster Acting Governors, in a ranked order, to assume control of the state in the event that the rest of the civilian government for the state was killed or missing.

After the passage of the law in 1958, Governor Pat Brown appointed his Disaster Acting Governors. Of the seven appointed in 1959, the only one resigned before the end of Brown’s term was Thomas C. Lynch. According to newspaper reports, Lynch resigned as Disaster Acting Governor #1 in order to run for Attorney General in 1966, which he won.

“Disaster Acting Governor #6” Oath of Office signed by Earl Smittcamp on August 25, 1967

After the 1966 election, Ronald Reagan moved into the Governor’s office and soon appointed a new group of seven new Disaster Governors. In addition to Smittcamp (designated as “Disaster Acting Governor #6”), other six others were Carlyle Reed (#1), Victor Lundy (#2), R. Gwin Follis (#3), Y. Frank Freeman (#4), Virgil Pinkley (#5), and A. W. Bramwell (#7). Two years later, Reagan appointed Robert L. Vickers to fill the vacancy created when Freeman died in 1969.

Since the appointment of Vickers in 1969, no new Disaster Governors were appointed and time has gradually taken its toll on Reagan’s seven appointees; Lundy and Bramwell died in the 1970s, with Follis and Pinkley following in the early 1990s. Carlyle Reed died in 1999, leaving only Vickers and Smittcamp rounding out the line of succession.

After more than a decade as the highest-ranked Disaster Governor, Vickers died earlier this year at age 92. Now, after nearly half a century, Smittcamp serves on as California’s last remaining Doomsday Governor.

Those we lost in 2011.

California lost a some notable state officials and candidates in 2011. Among those who died in 2011 were legislators, judges, mentors, and one who was trusted for more than four decades with keeping the candle of democracy lit if the world burned. As we near the end of the year, we wanted to take a moment to recognize their lives and contributions.

JANUARY
Donald D. Doyle – Assemblyman (1953-1958)
Wayne Grisham – Congressman (1979-1983), Assemblyman (1984-1988)

FEBRUARY
Steve Horn – Congressman (1993-2003)

MARCH
Robert L. Vickers – Disaster Acting Governor #3 (1969-2011)
Howard J. Thelin – Assemblyman (1956-1966)
Doug McNea – Candidate for Congress and Assembly

APRIL
Bob Epple – Assemblyman (1988-1994)

MAY
Frank S. Petersen – State Senator (1962-1966)

JUNE
Matt Fong – State Treasurer (1995-1998)
John Stull – Assemblyman (1967-1973), State Senator (1973-1978)

AUGUST
Floyd G. Sampson – Candidate for Congress
Gib Marguth – Assemblyman (1980-1982)
Dick Floyd – Assemblyman (1980-1992, 1996-2000)
Charles Gubser – Assemblyman (1951-1952), Congressman (1953-1975)

OCTOBER
Matthew G. Martinez – Assemblyman (1980-1982), Congressman (1982-2001)
Tim Hodson – Director of the Center for California Studies (1993-2011)

NOVEMBER
Teresa P. Hughes – Assemblywoman (1975-1992), State Senator (1992-2000)
Carlos J. Moorhead – Assemblyman (1967-1972), Congressman (1973-1996)

DECEMBER
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In 700 Days: Jerry Brown as California’s Longest-Serving Governor

Governor Earl Warren

700 days from today, Jerry Brown will become the longest-serving Governor in California history. On that day, October 7, 2013, Brown will surpass the record set by Governor Earl Warren in 1953.

On October 5th of that year, Warren resigned as Governor to accept an appointment as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (a position he held until 1969). Warren had run in the 1952 Presidential Primaries (winning California) and his nomination as Justice was reported to be insurance by President Eisenhower against another run by Warren in 1956.

Another interesting note about this date (October 7th, 2013) is that it will be the 10th anniversary of the recall of Governor Gray Davis, who had served as Brown’s Chief of Staff during his first term (1975-1981).