John Van de Kamp would feel right at home today if he were back on the job as California attorney general.
Van de Kamp, who died earlier this week at age 81, handled issues 30 years ago when I was writing about him that aren’t much different from what the current attorney general faces.
As California’s twice-elected attorney general, he battled President Ronald Reagan’s Interior Department in the 1980s, suing to block the administration’s plan to open more of California’s coastal waters to offshore oil drilling. As Washington eased enforcement of civil rights, Van de Kamp’s deputies challenged boys’ clubs that refused to admit girls and male-only business clubs that blackballed women.
When a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and wounded a Mexican boy who had been standing on the Mexican side of the border, Van de Kamp personally investigated, telling me in 1985: “I will be somewhat responsible ultimately for what we decide to do in the case. I wanted to give it personal attention.” The agent was not charged, but a judge awarded the youth $500,000 in a civil case.
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Van de Kamp opposed capital punishment, when 80 percent of the people supported it, although he led an office that defended death sentences before the California Supreme Court. He supported abortion rights, but as attorney general was compelled to defend a law then on the books that denied state funding for abortion. That damaged him, too.
In the aftermath of the 1989 Cleveland Elementary School massacre in Stockton, Van de Kamp assigned investigators the task of deconstructing the hate-filled shooter, Patrick Purdy. They produced a haunting portrait of a racist who disliked Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians, Jews and African Americans, and thought immigrants should speak English.
At a time when gun control in California was not popular, Van de Kamp used the shooting to illustrate the need for a ban on assault weapons. To drive home the point, he addressed the state Assembly in 1989, displaying an AK-47, the same type Purdy had used.
“You are lucky that I am the attorney general and not a nut,” Van de Kamp told the lawmakers. And in a political climate when the National Rifle Association could sway elections, he told legislators: “Don’t take a dime from the NRA until they admit that weapons designed to kill or maim on the battlefield have no place on our streets or in our schoolyards.”
Probably his most principled and most damaging stand occurred in 1981, when, as Los Angeles County district attorney, he refused to prosecute Angelo Buono in the Hillside Strangler case, concluding that Buono’s cousin, Kenneth Bianchi, was an unreliable witness.
Then-Superior Court Judge Ronald M. George refused to dismiss the case, opening the way for then-Attorney General George Deukmejian’s deputies to take over and win a murder conviction of Buono. Deukmejian became governor and George became a California Supreme Court chief justice. Van de Kamp later acknowledged that he had made a mistake, but lost the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial primary to Dianne Feinstein.
Van de Kamp wasn’t flashy or glib. But he was level-headed and intelligent, and might have become governor, if his principles didn’t get in the way. Today’s politicians would do well to study him, though ones with truly grand plans probably won’t follow his lead.