Robert Presley, an icon of Riverside and California politics, dies at 93

September 24, 2018

By Andre Mouchard

Before his name was on a local jail, before a criminal justice department at UC Riverside was named in his honor, before his decades in the state senate made him an icon of Riverside and California politics, Robert B. Presley already was something rare:

A war hero.

Presley won the Bronze Star in World War II, while serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Italy.

There have been some 1.4 million Bronze Stars awarded in the decades since, but when Presley won his, in 1944, the award was new and the only way you got it, according to military records, was clear – for “heroic or meritorious achievement or service” in battle.

But ask Presley’s colleagues and friends for details about that medal, and they draw a blank.

“No idea,” said Ruth Denman, Presley’s office administrator from 1970 through 1974, the last third of Presley’s 12-year stint as Riverside County Undersheriff.  “Bob never mentioned it, that I recall.

“That would be like him,” she added.

Presley, 93, who died Saturday, Sept. 22, after a brief illness, was widely viewed as a warm, thoughtful undersheriff and state legislator.

But the Oklahoma native, the son of a farmer, was also described by many as a much better listener than talker, at least if the subject was Presley.

Those listening skills, and a combination of warmth and gravitas, served Presley well during two long and distinctly different careers – as a leader with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and, later, as a member of the California State Senate.

Early in his career in law enforcement, Presley earned a reputation as Riverside County’s top homicide investigator.

“He looked at reason and followed that,” said retired Riverside County Sheriff Cois Byrd, who met Presley in the early 1960s, when Byrd was rising through the department and Presley was a commander in Indio.

“(Following reason) is a good trait for an investigator.”

Byrd and Presley worked together in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Byrd was tasked with starting a new unit, community relations, and Presley was undersheriff to long-time Sheriff Ben Clark. At the time, civil unrest was gaining popularity and anti-police sentiment was on the rise, and Presley was asked to talk with – and listen to – members of the public who, often, had issues with the department.

“Bob was low key and non-intrusive, but very decisive,” Byrd said. “And he was very strong with the community.”

Strong enough that after a 24-year run with the Riverside County Sheriff, Presley took a stab at politics.

Presley narrowly lost his first campaign, a 1972 special election bid for California State Senate. But he ran again in 1974 and won, beating incumbent Craig Biddle to represent the 34th Senate District. Presley’s constituency included residents of cities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, but redistricting changed his district to the 36th and shifted the geography so that for a time he represented cities only in Riverside County and, later, cities in both Riverside and northern San Diego counties.

Also, initially, it wasn’t clear that Presley would win.

“When I went to bed, during that (’74) election, Bob was behind. When I woke up, he’d won,” said Presley’s former secretary Denman.

“He barely got in, but you could tell he’d be good at (politics),” Denman added.

Retired Sheriff Byrd noted another aspect of Presley’s political launch that became a hallmark of his time in Sacramento: Presley ran and won as a Democrat in a very Republican area.

“He was a moderate Democrat; fairly conservative, actually,” Byrd said.

“But in that era, Democrats and Republicans were still talking to each other on big issues,” Byrd added.

“In Sacramento, Bob Presley became the go-to guy to talk to for people on both sides of the aisle.”

Over the years, Presley worked on many different pieces of legislation, and helped direct state spending as head of the powerful California Senate Appropriations Committee. But colleagues link Presley’s name to three key issues – the environment, prison expansion and reform, and domestic violence.

The state’s vehicle smog check program, which started in the early 1980s, is a direct result of Presley’s work.

“It was not particularly popular, as I recall, and he had to do a lot of selling to get that ball through the hoop,” said Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, who described Presley as his “political mentor.”

“But it was necessary.”

Roth noted that Presley led the organization of the California Air Quality Management system, and said air today is cleaner in high-smog areas such as the Inland Empire as a result of Presley’s efforts.

“Presley’s work dramatically improved our region and our state.”

Presley also led a statewide push to build new prisons, with 16 facilities coming on line at a time when many of the state’s prisons were antiquated.

“He did more as a legislator for the criminal justice system than any other legislator in my career,” retired Sheriff Byrd said. “He focused on making things happen.”

And, critically, Presley was a relentless champion to recognize, and fight against, domestic violence.

At a time when the issue wasn’t top of mind, and when the vast majority of state lawmakers were men, Presley established the state’s first shelters to protect battered women and children.

“I think, because of his previous position (in the Riverside County Sheriff’s Dept.), Presley understood the impact of domestic violence on the family, and society, better than other people at the time,” state Sen. Roth said.

After retiring from the legislature in 1994, Presley remained active in state politics. He was appointed to serve as chair of the state parole board by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and, later, to serve as secretary of youth and adult corrections by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. In the early 2000s he worked as a lobbyist, representing Riverside County in Sacramento.

Through it all, colleagues said, Presley remained committed to reaching across whatever political aisle existed, and believed “compromise” was not a bad word at all in politics.

“Bob Presley brought a human touch to politics,” Sen. Roth said. “He was a true gentleman in a political world that, unfortunately, doesn’t currently have use for true gentlemen.”

Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione said, “The times of Bob Presley seem to be gone. And that’s unfortunate.”

When asked how Presley won his Bronze Star, Roth, like others, said he never heard the details.

“He didn’t talk about himself that way.”

Presley is survived by his wife, Susan Presley, daughters Marilyn Raphael and Donna Danielson, and son Robert Presley Jr. A service in Riverside is being planned.