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Kam Kuwata dies at 57; leading California Democratic political strategist

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Kam Kuwata, one of California's leading Democratic political strategists and a droll wit whose colorful quotes and keen analyses enlivened many campaigns, was found dead in his Venice condominium Monday. He was 57.

Police were called to investigate when family and friends grew concerned after not hearing from Kuwata for several days. The cause of death was not known, but a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman, Sgt. Ron Pickering, said there was no evidence of foul play.

Kuwata's death brought an outpouring of shock and fond remembrance from strategists for both major parties, as well as reporters who knew him as both a source and occasional verbal sparring partner.

"He was a great, smart, savvy political mind," said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist and Kuwata's longtime friend and campaign partner. "Even more important, he was one of the nicest people that ever worked in politics. Generous beyond compare."

Don Sipple, a GOP strategist in Santa Barbara, said he "worked with Kam and against Kam, and he was always a true professional and a gentleman."

Kam Toyo Kuwata was born Oct. 1, 1953, in the Bay Area and raised in Sierra Madre by a single mother. He showed his puckish humor — and partisan bent — early on. At age 6, he was handed a "Democrats for Nixon" bumper sticker and promptly scratched off a few letters so that it read "Rats for Nixon."

More seriously, he had a deep interest in civil rights; during World War II, his mother's family had been forced to live in a Japanese American internment camp.

Kuwata attended Pasadena High, where he pushed for greater integration of the public schools, and went on to USC, where he earned a degree in political science and spent free time volunteering for Democratic candidates and causes.

His mother wanted him to go to law school, but instead Kuwata moved to Washington, D.C., where he joined Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston's staff as a mail clerk. He rose through the ranks to become a spokesman for Cranston's unsuccessful 1984 presidential campaign.

Two years later, Kuwata emerged as one California's highest-profile campaign strategists — and most quotable political sources — as the voluble spokesman for Cranston's reelection effort, one of the closest and hardest-fought California contests in decades.

With a barbed sense of humor, Kuwata relished campaign combat, delighting in a well-turned phrase and the ability to get under the skin of political opponents. By the end of that contest, Republican nominee Ed Zschau was in a running debate with Kuwata, responding to his quotes in the morning newspapers while the senator floated above the fray. Cranston, an underdog, won the race by fewer than 105,000 votes out of more than 7 million cast.

In 1992, Kuwata joined Carrick as a top strategist for Dianne Feinstein, helping her claim the U.S. Senate seat she still holds. Kuwata helped Feinstein win reelection several times and, up until his death, was talking up her prospects for another run in 2012.

"California has lost a sharp political mind, and I've lost a loyal and dear friend of more than 20 years," Feinstein said in a written statement. "He was respected by people in politics and journalism, something I always thought spoke volumes about the kind of person he was....There will never be another like Kam."

Other clients included Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka, former Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice). In 2008, he helped then-Sen. Barack Obama's campaign team manage the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

"Kam's brilliance as a political strategist was matched by his passion for our country and the process by which we govern ourselves," President Obama said in a statement Monday night from the White House. "Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to Kam's extended family of friends and to so many in California who mourn his passing."

Although relentless in his advocacy and quick to pounce on any perceived error or misrepresentation, Kuwata counted many reporters and rival strategists as friends, sealing those relationships over good food, expensive bourbon, cigars or a round of golf.

Kuwata is survived by his mother and a brother. Information on services was not available Monday.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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