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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : CAMPAIGN JOURNAL : Van de Kamp Shifts Into Role of Lame Duck on Campaign Trail

November 01, 1990|PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The candidate was 10 minutes late for his press conference and television cameramen were fiddling with their lenses. Hot dog-chomping reporters impatiently eyed their watches. Leaders of a dozen state and local law enforcement groups nervously memorized their sound bites. Then, out of his Wilshire Boulevard office tower sprang Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp.

Surveying the familiar scene, the two-term prosecutor grinned sheepishly and waved at the crowd--which had nothing to do with his presence. Then he walked down the block to lunch while the newsmen continued to wait for the arrival of Arlo Smith, the Democratic contender to succeed him.

A few short months ago, Van de Kamp, 54, was the odds-on favorite for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Spotlights focused on his youthful face. Reporters dogged his cautious footsteps. Microphones amplified his every thought.

But since his sound defeat by Dianne Feinstein in last June's toughly fought primary, Van de Kamp has faded into the background of California politics.

The lame-duck prosecutor, who leaves public office in January, says he is spending much of his time preparing the state Department of Justice for his successor--San Francisco Dist. Atty. Smith or former Republican Rep. Dan Lungren.

"The focus has been first of all on the office--to make sure we are in as good shape as we can be," said Van de Kamp, following the dedication of the Ronald Reagan state office building in downtown Los Angeles last week. "We've had major hits this year on the budget so we've had to do a lot of internal adjustments," he said. "It's a busy time. I was in Sacramento Tuesday, San Diego yesterday and now I'm here today."

Van de Kamp has also been working, primarily behind the scenes, to help fellow Democrats Feinstein and Smith, and to win passage of three ballot propositions that he had once hoped would propel him into the governor's office.

Ironically, his real legacy is less likely to come from his failed campaign than from his sponsorship of the ballot measures--Proposition 128, the so-called "Big Green" environmental initiative; Proposition 129, which authorizes drug enforcement funding and clarifies constitutional rights to reproductive choice; and Proposition 131, which would limit elected officials' terms while establishing public campaign financing.

Van de Kamp's generally low-key public role has included speeches before partisan crowds, meetings with newspaper editorial boards, and fund-raising phone calls. In recent weeks, he has also made a public appearance for Smith in San Diego and attended a $1,000-a-plate Democratic Party unity dinner with Feinstein and Smith in San Francisco.

"I've been doing anything really that they've asked," he asserted, "within the bounds of reason."

In a year dominated by negative campaigning, Van de Kamp predicts that the tightly contested race between Feinstein and Republican Sen. Pete Wilson could still be won by whomever chooses the opposite tack during the final days.

"I think we're in the period now where an elevating inspirational message that gets us out of the rut of this back-and-forth negative stuff since the summer might lift either campaign (to victory)," he said.

In the same breath, Van de Kamp adds that Smith's best chance to succeed him as attorney general lies with loudly attacking Lungren's conservative views.

"It's really going to be dependent on television commercials," Van de Kamp said. "Smith has a good chance of winning if he can better establish in the public's mind Lungren's negatives such as his anti-choice views (on abortion), his support of pro-oil positions and his lack of institutional prosecutorial experience."

Van de Kamp expressed his thoughts after taking a tour of the new Reagan Building, where his successor will set up a Southern California satellite office.

"It's a pretty good view--a little bit of everything from (St. Vibiana's) church to Dodger Stadium," said Van de Kamp, as he strode through the still-incomplete quarters with an impressively credentialed tour party.

"I like this hallway, but the one on the other side is a little bleak," he confided to famed sculptor Robert Graham.

Van de Kamp's concern about nuts-and-bolts matters extends to the future of the attorney general's office.

Neither Smith nor Lungren, he says, have focused on programs he considers his major achievements: the introduction of such technological breakthroughs as DNA analysis in crime fighting, and the beefing up of the office's consumer protection, civil rights and antitrust enforcement programs.

Despite his crushing loss last June, Van de Kamp said he has no regrets about having given up the prosecutor's post for a shot at the governor's office.

"I tried to erase any element of bitterness from my psyche," he said. "I tried to just get rid of any taint of that at the time of election night . . . Now that's done and I look on."

To what end is not yet clear.

"I've been in public life for 30 years," the former Los Angeles County district attorney and federal public defender said. "I've had a very good run and I'm very grateful for the opportunities that I've had. Now it's time to make a change.

"I'm looking at law, business, foundations, some educational kinds of things . . . You know I could be in nonprofits, working with nonprofit boards (while) keeping active as a private citizen in the politics of my party.

"I'm not going to make a Sherman-like statement," he concluded. "But I'm not leaving public office with the thought that I'm just waiting for the next brass ring to grab . . . I do not intend to run for election, certainly with respect to the United States Senate or anything else."

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