Local Obituaries

Former newsman John Keplinger led California’s political watchdog agency

John Keplinger
John Keplinger Keplinger family photo

Growing up listening to newsman Edward R. Murrow, John Keplinger was inspired to become a journalist, and the election of President John F. Kennedy instilled in him a passion for politics, said his son.

Keplinger, a former newspaper reporter, political campaign consultant and chief of the California secretary of state’s political reform unit, died Dec. 17 in Sacramento of complications from bladder cancer, family members said. He was 80 years old.

As a reporter for the Palo Alto Times, he was trusted by sources, and as a government employee, he was able to work well with people of all political persuasions, said George Skelton, a longtime friend and political columnist with the Los Angeles Times.

Skelton said he was a journalism student at what was then San Jose State College when he was introduced to Keplinger, a recent San Jose State graduate who had landed a reporting job with the Palo Alto Times covering local government. When Skelton was hired by a Sunnyvale newspaper to cover the same beat, Keplinger took him under his wing.

“He was working for a competing paper, but he showed me around and introduced me to people I needed to know,” Skelton said. “He took the time to show me the ropes. I thought that was very unusual.”

For several years, their careers paralleled each other.

“We both covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago,” recalled Skelton, who was working for the Sacramento Union at the time.

Both men were on the streets of Chicago as thousands of Vietnam War protesters battled with police. “We dodged tear gas together,” Skelton said.

Keplinger left reporting to go to work for a political consulting firm in the Bay Area. Given his experience covering local politics, he was considered a logical choice for the job because he had contacts with all the area politicians, said his son Mark Keplinger.

John Keplinger worked on the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey. He also was the main strategist in Wilson Riles’ 1970 campaign for state superintendent of public instruction, said Skelton, noting that Riles was the first African American elected to a statewide office in California.

Keplinger moved to Sacramento in 1975 to become the first public information officer for the Fair Political Practices Commission, created a year earlier when voters approved Proposition 9, the Political Reform Act, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Keplinger was the commission’s executive director from 1983 to 1986.

It’s very complicated stuff, but he could explain it in language that a journalist or anyone else could understand. ... He didn’t use ‘bureaucratese,’ no government-speak.

George Skelton, on friend John Keplinger’s skill in explaining campaign finance laws

He served as assistant state treasurer under Jesse Unruh before joining the secretary of state’s Political Reform Division, serving as assistant chief and then as chief of the division. He retired in 2007.

Skelton said Keplinger was his best source for stories dealing with campaign finance laws.

“It’s very complicated stuff, but he could explain it in language that a journalist, or anyone else, could understand. … He didn’t use ‘bureaucratese,’ no government-speak,” Skelton said.

Keplinger was born May 4, 1936, to Lester and Anne Keplinger in San Jose, where he grew up with his older brother, Fred.

He married Patricia Baratini, who had grown up in Sacramento, and they had two sons. Although the couple later divorced, family members said they remained good friends.

Outside of work, Keplinger had two great loves – his family and golf, said longtime friend Lynne Vernon. He delighted in following his grandson’s and granddaughter’s athletic endeavors through their high school and college years, she said.

“John was just very compassionate, very kind,” Vernon said.

He belonged to a traveling golf group based at Haggin Oaks Golf Course that played courses throughout Northern California, Vernon said.

Keplinger’s favorite vacation spot was Maui, which he considered a golfer’s paradise, said his son.

In addition to his former wife, Patricia, and son Mark, both of San Jose, Keplinger is survived by son Steve Keplinger of Sacramento and two grandchildren.

Mark Keplinger said the family plans a private service at one of his father’s favorite golf venues, Dry Creek Ranch Golf Course in Galt.

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy