Editor’s note: This story originally was published in The Sacramento Bee on May 6, 1990. It is being republished on the occasion of John Van de Kamp’s death.
Standing outside the state Capitol in February (1990), John Van de Kamp officially launched his campaign for governor by declaring the influence of money on politics “a disgrace” and vowing to “drain the political swamp.”
A month later, the attorney general called on the state to test and license the so-called abortion pill used in France, claiming federal officials would bend to pressure “from anti-choice forces.”
In April, he traveled to the state’s agricultural heartland and said Fresno residents “drink and breathe in a toxic chemical soup like no place on Earth” because of “indiscriminate use” of pesticides by farmers.
And on May Day, Van de Kamp told water industry officials what they didn’t want to hear: There would be no Peripheral Canal in his administration, and federal water subsidies to large corporate farmers should be cut.
Tough talk. Some might say bold talk. But most would say surprising talk from a man who by most accounts is cautious and deliberate almost to a fault.
During his 30 years of public life, the 54-year-old Van de Kamp has developed a reputation as honest, earnest, intelligent and hard-working.
But he’s also seen in political circles as bland, boring and simply lacking star-quality pizazz.
Some prominent Democrats believe it’s the latter qualities that explain his high-profile, high-risk strategy in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor. He needed, they argue, an image booster.
But Van de Kamp explains it differently.
“I think I am much more dedicated to change than the other candidates, “ he said. It is time in California, he added, to “go beyond the vested interests that have been able to hold off change in the past.”
At first glance, Van de Kamp would appear an unlikely candidate to carry the banner for change.
He comes from a wealthy, well-established family in Pasadena where he still lives with his wife, Andrea, who is vice president of Sotheby’s auction house, and their 11-year-old daughter, Diana.
He received an Ivy League undergraduate education at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and his law degree from Stanford University.
And he has spent most of the last 30 years as a prosecutor, firmly entrenched as part of the political and legal establishment.
But there are also events in his background that suggest how he came to hold his liberal-leaning views.
His family, for example, wasn’t always rich. His mother, Georgie, was a teacher and his father, Harry, a bank teller during much of the Depression.
In 1940, his father joined the family restaurant business, Lawry’s, The Prime Rib Restaurant, named for Lawrence, an older brother. Other relatives opened Van de Kamp bakeries, a side of the family business his father, who died 12 years ago, never went into. The family also branched out to package seasonings, a portion of the business that was sold to Lipton Co. in 1977.
“The family’s business fortunes dramatically improved in the Fifties. . . . It certainly was upper middle-class conditions in which I was raised, but I still had pretty good community ties, “ Van de Kamp recalled.
Today, Van de Kamp’s spry 83-year-old mother and a cousin, Richard Frank, remain principal owners of three Lawry’s restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas as well as the Tam O’Shanter Inn in Glendale and the Five Crowns in Corona del Mar.
Van de Kamp, who estimates his net worth at $800,000, and a younger sister, Gretchen, a Northern California homemaker, are not directly involved in the business but stand to inherit a $1.5 million trust now held by their mother.
Politics was a subject of frequent discussion in the Van de Kamp household. The fact that his father was a Republican and his mother a Democrat made discussions more interesting.
“My mother had quite a social conscience. My father voted for Roosevelt in 1932, but didn’t vote for him afterward, “ Van de Kamp said, laughing.
“Actually, it was sort of fun. Never got to be bitter in the household, but there was a lot of talk about politics. I stayed up with current events and they did, too.”
Van de Kamp’s early interest in current affairs and the environment was forged by an unusual private school he attended from fifth through the ninth grades called Trailfinders in Altadena, Los Angeles County. There were 40 boys in the school, eight or nine to a class.
“Every other weekend you’d go out camping. For summer, you’d go out for six weeks. One summer we started out in the Grand Canyon, went on to Hopi Indian country . . . and ended up climbing the Grand Tetons, “ Van de Kamp said.
The headmaster, Harry C. James, began every day with classical music and by reading and discussing the newspaper. “Many of us were raised with an appreciation for current events, “ Van de Kamp said.
He was a good enough student that he skipped a grade before returning to public schools at McKinley Junior High School and John Muir High School in Pasadena, where he was an avid reader and played on tennis teams. He entered Dartmouth as a 16-year-old freshman.
“The major attraction to me at Dartmouth was skiing and the outdoors stuff because of my background, “ he recalled. “I did not spend a great deal of time doing those things when I was there, however.”
Instead, he spent much of his college career working at the campus radio station and majoring in government.
He went to Stanford’s law school, he said, “wanting to gain independence from my family, “ and toying with the idea of getting a legal background so he could go into the entertainment business.
But after a hitch in the Army, that all changed. One of the first places he interviewed for a job was the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, and he was hired on July 1, 1960.
“It was probably the most important job decision I ever made. What I saw in that job was a tremendous potential for experience in a lot of problems. That really was the beginning of the track that has brought me here today, “ Van de Kamp said.
Kevin O’Connell, a Los Angeles attorney who has known Van de Kamp since his early years in the U.S. attorney’s office, said Van de Kamp has always “put in very long hours, been very intense and very detailed.”
Van de Kamp went on to become U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and later worked in Washington, D.C., for two years, overseeing U.S. attorneys across the country. In 1969, he returned to the San Fernando Valley to run for Congress but lost to Barry Goldwater Jr. in a special election.
He continued in politics, helping manage Jesse Unruh’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 1970. In 1971, he was named the first federal public defender in Los Angeles. Four years later, he was appointed district attorney for Los Angeles County and was twice re-elected by large margins.
It was as district attorney that Van de Kamp first confronted an issue that has dogged him throughout his political career - the death penalty.
He remains personally opposed to the death penalty, a point that puts him at odds with nearly eight out of 10 California voters. He points out that as district attorney and attorney general since 1982, he has put or fought to keep hundreds of murderers on death row. And he says as governor he would do the same.
“Some people have written I should leave office because I disagree with the death penalty, “ Van de Kamp said. “If that test were applied across the board in public life, there’d be nobody in public life because there is no one that agrees with every public policy that they are committed by law to uphold.”
The death penalty is only one in a series of apparent contradictions between his personal philosophy and his public positions.
He is a Roman Catholic personally opposed to abortion but has made a woman’s right to choose a cornerstone of his campaign. He is leading a drive for passage of a far-reaching environmental initiative but until recently defended the Deukmejian administration in its decision to allow logging of old-growth redwoods. He is running as a outsider determined to clean up politics but has long been part of the system he now criticizes.
Van de Kamp maintains that some of the conflicts were the result of his sworn duty to carry out the law.
“I respect my own personal values and have not changed them. At the same time, I also recognize - and it’s both a personal and public value - the rule of law in a democratic society where one carries out the will of the people. And sometimes on occasion you may disagree with that, “ he said.
But there are those who would argue Van de Kamp is trying to make himself look like a white knight at the expense of others. They point to the ethics initiative he is trying to qualify for the November ballot as a prime example. They note that as attorney general, he has done little to crack down on ethics abuses. And they predict a shaky relationship with the Legislature.
“I think it would be impossible for him to govern for a long period of time, “ said Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, D-San Francisco, who like others is angered by Van de Kamp’s proposal to limit the number of terms a legislator can serve.
But a supporter, Los Angeles attorney Mickey Kantor, said Van de Kamp is not a political opportunist. “He does not play the old boy, old girl network at all, “ said Kantor. “He believed it was time for someone to stand up.”