Van de Kamp’s Stand on Abortion Rights Gives Primary Bid a Boost

Times Political Writer

For months, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp’s political advisers have worried because he faces a tough Democratic primary in the 1990 governor’s race against former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, while, on the Republican side, U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson is sailing unopposed to his nomination.

But by charging this week that a crime initiative supported by Feinstein and Wilson could endanger a woman’s right to abortion, Van de Kamp has suddenly strengthened himself with the liberal voters who dominate the Democratic primary.

“At a minimum, this will have the effect of Jack Kennedy’s telephone call to Coretta King in the 1960 presidential race,” Democrat John Emerson said. “The word will get out quickly to the right people--in this case those actively involved on the pro-choice side--that Van de Kamp was sensitive and vigilant on their issue.”

Political professionals say privately that Democratic activists may now be swayed toward Van de Kamp and away from Feinstein on this issue even though both candidates are strongly pro-choice on abortion.


But there is also a potential danger in Van de Kamp’s move.

Should he wind up in the general election against Wilson, Van de Kamp’s opposition to the crime initiative could be held up as proof that he is soft on crime, a deadly label with the conservative Democrats who make up a crucial swing vote in California elections.

The Wilson camp is already preparing to make such a charge, and will note that Van de Kamp had objected to the crime initiative long before he brought up the abortion issue.

“John Van de Kamp’s objection to the crime initiative shows his true base--the liberal left,” Wilson campaign adviser Otto Bos said. “This is going to come back and haunt him if he makes it to the general election.”


Grass-Roots Opposition

Republican strategists say that Van de Kamp may have so angered local law enforcement leaders and crime victims that they will mount strong grass-roots opposition to his gubernatorial candidacy.

Such movements can be potent in California. One cut property taxes by passing Proposition 13 in 1978; another helped oust former California Supreme Court Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird in 1986.

“Van de Kamp has found a cheap-shot way to undercut this initiative by saying that it could endanger a woman’s right to abortion,” Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling Norris said. “For him to suddenly have this objection after all the hard work we have put into this thing, and when his own staff was in on our discussions, is just outrageous.”


Collene Campbell, who became a victims’ rights activist after her brother, auto racer Mickey Thompson, was murdered, said: “We feel very bad that Mr. Van de Kamp has decided to oppose this initiative after the victims have been out just killing themselves trying to bring justice to California. . . . We are appalled, we are disgusted.”

Amend State Constitution

The Crime Victims’ Justice Reform initiative would amend the California Constitution if it qualifies for the June, 1990, ballot and is approved by voters.

It is usually referred to as the “speedy trial initiative” because several of its provisions are aimed at unclogging California’s courts. It would also make it easier for prosecutors to seek the death penalty.


Wilson, seeing the appeal to voters worried about crime, agreed to be the initiative’s honorary chairman and to raise money for it. Feinstein, whose strategy is to portray herself as a tough Democrat, endorsed the measure last week.

But the area where the initiative ran afoul of Van de Kamp is a section addressing the right to privacy, which was written into the California Constitution in 1972 and is a major protection of women seeking abortions.

The crime initiative section reads, in part: “In criminal cases the right of a defendant to . . . privacy . . . shall be construed by the courts in this State in a manner consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”

No Privacy Guarantee


What troubles Van de Kamp is that there is no explicit guarantee of privacy in the U.S. Constitution. Without that guarantee, the privacy that women have enjoyed since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade abortion decision could be eliminated if Roe is overturned.

The district attorneys say their interest in the state’s guarantee of privacy relates only to search-and-seizure cases. But Van de Kamp argues that the measure, whether intended or not, removes that guarantee and thus threatens to undo a woman’s unqualified right to have an abortion in California.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who supports the crime initiative, said: “Obviously, the intent of the authors had nothing to do with reproductive rights, but the question raised (by Van de Kamp) is a legitimate question.”

Van de Kamp’s objections could be addressed if the ballot argument for the crime initiative explicitly states that the intent is not to endanger the right to abortion.


Message of Vigilance

But he wants to go further and remove the initiative language. The initiative’s backers do not want to do that, in part because they would have to start all over gathering signatures before the Dec. 29 qualifying deadline.

Even if the measure is amended to please Van de Kamp, his message of vigilance on the issue has already been sent to Democratic primary voters in the governor’s race.

Wilson adviser Bos warns, however: “It’s a short-term political gain.”