It didn't take long for the TV commercials in the California governor's race to turn negative.
In one of the earliest such attacks in recent state political history, Democrat John K. Van de Kamp plans to run ads this weekend that accuse Dianne Feinstein of mismanaging San Francisco when she was mayor from 1978 to 1988.
Van de Kamp once ignored Feinstein, his opponent in the June 5 primary, and concentrated on the presumptive Republican nominee, U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson.
But he started attacking her record after she rocketed to a 19-point lead over him in the most recent Los Angeles Times Poll.
She also led Wilson by 11 points in the same survey. A dramatic biographical ad she ran about herself in February was credited with her rise in the polls.
Van de Kamp spokesman Duane Peterson refused Thursday to discuss the negative commercial with a Times reporter who has seen it and said at one point: "It is not on the air yet and it is our private property and whoever showed it to you is breaking the law."
Peterson also refused to grant an interview with the person who did the research for the Van de Kamp ad, deputy campaign manager Vicky Rideout.
The Van de Kamp attack on Feinstein's record is standard in the TV-dominated world of modern politics, where negative spots have been found to be very effective. The ad is not a personal attack on Feinstein, which distinguishes it from the most controversial ads of the genre.
But the cassette of the Van de Kamp ad provided television stations is labeled "bio/Van de Kamp campaign" even though it is not a biography of Van de Kamp. This makes it difficult for anyone reading the label to know that it is an attack on Feinstein.
But the ad most definitely is not about Van de Kamp. It is about Feinstein and it is tough.
"She was cited for dumping a billion gallons of sewage in the Bay," it begins, showing a photo of Feinstein alongside a newspaper headline reading: "Billion Gallon Sewage Spill--SF Faces Fine." The ad goes on to make five other specific charges about Feinstein's stewardship of San Francisco.
But the Van de Kamp attack takes some liberties with the record of Feinstein, who was named one of the top municipal executives in the nation by an industry magazine in 1987. For one thing, Feinstein actually built a sewage treatment system for the city during her tenure and the Bay is cleaner today than it has been in years.
The 30-second spot, produced for Van de Kamp by the Washington firm of Doak, Shrum & Associates, ends with a tagline that says: "Dianne Feinstein: If she couldn't manage a city, how could she manage California?"
The attack is a sharp departure in strategy for Van de Kamp, who said several months ago that he hoped the governor's campaign would be a discussion of the issues, including the November ballot initiative on the environment, which he is sponsoring.
Word of the Van de Kamp attack ad reached the Wilson campaign Thursday, where there was jubilation.
Wilson press secretary Bill Livingstone said he fully expected Feinstein to "go negative now and point out John Van de Kamp's record in the Hillside Strangler case."
That was a reference to Van de Kamp's decision as Los Angeles County district attorney a decade ago not to seek a murder conviction of Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono. The judge turned the case over to the state and it got the conviction. Van de Kamp has since called his decision "an error in judgment."
But Feinstein's chief consultants, William Carrick and Hank Morris, said Thursday they had not decided whether to attack Van de Kamp in TV ads.
"This attack on Dianne is right in line with the Van de Kamp strategy," Morris said. "Just as his campaign tried to emphasize the ballot initiatives he is sponsoring, the plan all along was to do anything but emphasize Van de Kamp himself. They know if they do that they will lose."
Carrick charged that "Van de Kamp has no credibility for these attacks on Dianne" because Van de Kamp's own biographical spot implies that he supports the death penalty by showing a photo of a gas chamber and saying that as attorney general Van de Kamp has kept 277 people on Death Row in California.
"But it is totally fraudulent because Van de Kamp is opposed to the death penalty and said on Century Cable recently that he would not vote for capital punishment if he were in the Legislature."
Van de Kamp's attack ad is scheduled to run in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, according to TV industry sources, but he could change that today.
CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS: THE TV CAMPAIGN The race: Governor. Whose ad? Democratic candidate and current Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp. Target of ad: His opponent, former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
What the ad says, with an analysis by Times political writer Keith Love :
Ad: "She (Feinstein) was cited for dumping a billion gallons of sewage in the bay."