Former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp, a liberal with strong consumer protection and environmental credentials, died Tuesday after a brief illness. He was 81.
Van de Kamp, a former federal public defender, was Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor when he successfully ran for California attorney general in 1982. He won re-election in 1986.
“John Van de Kamp lived for the values of justice and opportunity that define the State of California,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who worked at the state Department of Justice during Van De Kamp’s tenure, said in a statement Wednesday. “John understood the higher calling of public service. He performed for the people of California like few others.”
Gov. Jerry Brown said Van de Kamp “was a wonderful public servant and had a real sense of justice.”
Van de Kamp was an early favorite in the Democratic primary race for governor in 1990. But he lost to then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who went on to lose to U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, a Republican, in that fall’s general election.
“It was a treat to have him here. He was a very special guy,” said Philip Recht, a Mayer Brown partner and longtime friend of Van de Kamp’s who called him “a man of utmost integrity.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone who’s had a career like this in the law,” he said.
While attorney general, Van de Kamp led the state’s early efforts to ban assault weapons after Patrick E. Purdy gunned down five children on a Stockton schoolyard in 1989. He worked with then-Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti and others to pass the first bill in the country that sharply restricted the sale and possession of military-style assault weapons.
Van de Kamp was an early adopter of a now-frequent campaign strategy by candidates for higher office: Sponsoring ballot measures. He linked his 1990 gubernatorial candidacy to a trio of ballot measures dealing with the environment, drug abuse, and political ethics, with Van de Kamp touting the latter as a way to “drain the political swamp” at the Capitol.
Yet Van de Kamp advisers came to second-guess an expensive strategy of effectively running four campaigns at once as Feinstein surged ahead in the polls. Adding insult to injury, voters rejected all of the measures in November.
More recently, Van de Kamp, an ardent opponent of capital punishment, worked to pass unsuccessful efforts in 2012 and last year to end the death penalty. He was part of supporters’ ballot argument in favor of last November’s Proposition 62 and helped file the lawsuit to block Proposition 66, last fall’s measure that speeds up the death penalty process.
As attorney general, Van de Kamp went to court to uphold Proposition 103, the 1988 ballot measure that overhauled the state’s insurance marketplace. Insurance companies strongly opposed the initiative and quickly sued after its passage. Harvey Rosenfield, the proposition’s chief architect, called Van de Kamp “an old-school, gracious public servant.”
“He was a very determined advocate. He would be a model for an elected official in public service,” Rosenfield said.