John Van De Kamp Pleads His Own Case : The Attorney General Tries to Prove He’s Neither Too Liberal Nor Too Dull to Run California

<i> John Balzar is a Times staff writer</i>

DOWN THE BACKSTRETCH at Santa Anita, in a trail of dust and sweat and sweet dreams, the thoroughbreds dig in and come galloping home. In the grandstand, squinting through binoculars, is a man in a crumpled fishing vest and a polo shirt open to the chest. He tightens and edges forward on tiptoes. His baritone rises: “C’mon!”

At the finish, a 2-year-old maiden named Takatranquilizer holds on for the win. The boyish face of John K. Van de Kamp relaxes into a smile. “Yessss,” he says, whacking a companion on the back. His winning ticket is worth $7.40.

For a moment, it’s hard to fathom that this is really the staid and solemn attorney general of California, the very same dry and measured Democrat who hopes to be elected the next governor. He drops back onto his seat and returns to the Racing Form as he might to a legal brief. He analyzes the gait of each horse as the field assembles for the next race; he sips beer from a plastic cup. Here in the sunshine, John Van de Kamp takes a few rare hours away from the long campaign. Here, for a few rare hours, is a serious man at play. “OK,” he says with the breezy grin of the $2 bettor, “who do you like this time?”

SOMETIMES, POLITICIANS sneak up on us. They become part of our consciousness, slowly, election after election. We learn their names and their faces and their voices and their jobs. They become part of the civic landscape. And we come to know them. Or so we think.


John Kalar Van de Kamp is that sort of politician. His Dutch family name is on cookies and bakery goods in groceries everywhere. Who hasn’t eaten at his family’s Lawry’s restaurants or seasoned their food with Lawry’s condiments? Or seen his name over and over again in the news? California has come to know him as a comfortable, quiet, serious, workaday fellow with a familiar name.

Now, after 30 years in public life, Van de Kamp is hoping to parlay that name and that reputation into a victory in what will be his first seriously contested election. He has surrounded himself with some of the most talented campaign advisers available for hire anywhere, and they have pushed him off to a swift start.

The familiar name and the moneyed talent will come in handy, for there are deep difficulties in this campaign. The most frequently used word about him is dull. His very body language bespeaks a bland, utilitarian politics, more activist than the sullen partisanship of George Deukmejian, the incumbent governor, but a big contrast to the ideological fireworks of Ronald Reagan as governor or the experimental futurism of Jerry Brown.

Van de Kamp is a lawyer par excellence , a man who’s made a career of enforcing laws and carrying out orders. It’s a career with a generous helping of contradictions. He is a liberal who has made his mark in law enforcement; a former prosecutor who tried to have charges dropped in the Hillside Strangler sex murder case. He says he opposes the death penalty but will move expeditiously to carry out executions--because that is the law. He is a Roman Catholic opposed to abortion, but he defends a woman’s right to choose. He has long been a favorite of the Establishment, but now thumbs his nose at it. His opponents and, perhaps, many voters, having seen these contradictions, are beginning to ask, What does he really believe in?


In response, he and his brain-trusters have hatched an unusual strategy. They have linked his candidacy to three sweeping ballot initiatives--on ethics in government, crime and the environment--that they hope will erase his image as an Establishment Insider and give him a forward-looking agenda that people can sink their teeth into. Finally, at age 53, this basically reserved and thoughtful man, whose outlook on the world has been shaped by adherence to his lawbooks and the cozy comforts of old Pasadena, has been making waves and making enemies. If he isn’t offering a full-blown vision for leading California out of a period of retrenchment, at least there is the illusion of one.

For someone accustomed to serenity in his life and in his politics, the sensation of such a high-stakes campaign and the peppering of questions from the media “is like being shot out of a cannon,” Van de Kamp says. In front of everyone. Without a net.


ASK JOHN VAN DE KAMP what qualities he brings to the political arena and he talks about civility. Fairness. The workmanlike attributes of a lawyer. “There is the story I remember of an expedition in the middle of the Arctic winter,” he says by way of describing his political values. “People are at each other’s throats and living in very close confines. Cabin fever is setting in.

“Then, the leader of the expedition, a man named Vilhjalmur Stefannson, decides they are going to have a civilized dinner each night. People have to wear coats and ties. Now, mind you, this is the middle of the Arctic. Then, the whole attitude of the expedition changes materially. People are much more civilized with one another. . . .

“You’re going to find everywhere I’ve been, people got along pretty well. They were not left with ragged emotional highs or lows. They were comfortable with what we were trying to do; they were goal driven, treated fairly and had some fun.”

Even in these pious times, when public officials are judged and judged severely by the straightness of their lacing, Van de Kamp cuts a righteous figure. He is a serious man, and regarded as serious even by his opponents. But such a reputation comes at a price. Year in and year out throughout his long career, the official John Van de Kamp has been a pallid and juiceless public presence.

“I’m not a Willie Brown, and I never will be. Or a Jesse Jackson. That’s not my style,” Van de Kamp says. “But when I do my thing, I think there’s a sincerity and integrity. And I think I can make an entirely passable kind of presentation.”


The rap about his lack of imagination goes way back. When he was evaluated for a job on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s staff in 1967, the White House noted his qualities of tact, persuasiveness and vigor. Not noted was imagination or firmness, according to a White House memo prepared from the job interview. Van de Kamp received no job, but the one-page review deemed him worthy.

These sorts of characteristics are met with glee by his opponents, who hope to make the case that dullness is deeper than just a matter of style with Van de Kamp. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in his record that shows a vision--there are no quotations, nothing, all the way back to the 1960s. . . Nothing broader than the everyday political business,” says Otto Bos, campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, the shoo-in candidate for the Republican nomination for governor.

As Van de Kamp analyzes it, a certain dryness and even the lack of personal agenda are the handicaps that inevitably accompany a long career of being someone else’s lawyer. “I think that my problem has been over the years that I’ve been talking about . . . facts and issues and things that really require adherence to written pages,” he says. “It’s not as if you’re free to get out there and bullshit your way through a speech, you know . . ."--or to act on convictions that are at odds with the law.

And that, according to those who work with him and presumably know him best, is the principle that has governed Van de Kamp’s public life. He has held fast to the belief that the duty of a lawyer is to represent clients above causes and venerate the law above all. From 1960 to 1967, Van de Kamp was an assistant U.S. attorney who was eventually appointed the U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles by President Johnson. He went on to become an assistant in the Justice Department in Washington under U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark. He returned to Los Angeles and was appointed the region’s first federal public defender, serving from 1971 to 1975.

In each post, he defended the law, not any one political point of view. So one major task of Van de Kamp’s campaign will be to help voters reconcile the seemingly contradictory positions he’s found himself taking throughout his career.

In 1968, for example, he worked to help the Justice Department speed up the prosecutions of draft evaders. He helped prepare the government’s highly publicized and successful case against Dr. Benjamin Spock and four others on charges of encouraging draft evaders. (Spock’s conviction was eventually overturned.) But later, as a public defender, Van de Kamp jumped the fence to represent draft dodgers, and his office was part of the early defense efforts of Daniel Ellsberg’s co-defendant in the Pentagon Papers case. (To this day, Van de Kamp carries a beat-up leather briefcase tooled and stitched, hippie-style, by a draft evader he once defended.)

In recent years, he has stressed his crime-fighting record and was recently named “Attorney General of the Year” by the National Assn. of Attorneys General. He has held theatrical hearings to take testimony from drug smugglers. And, in one memorable image from a career that has sparked relatively few, he strode into the Legislature with an AK-47 to support a drive that resulted in limiting private ownership of assault weapons.

Perhaps his proudest achievement as attorney general has been the multimillion-dollar, computerized California Fingerprint System, known as Cal-I.D. Van de Kamp calls it a “revolution” in fingerprint tracing. With no small measure of satisfaction, he notes that the first criminal collared using the computer system was Richard Ramirez, the so-called Night Stalker--another homicidal sex maniac who terrorized Los Angeles.


But he’s been on the other side of the law-and-order debate, too. As district attorney of Los Angeles, Van de Kamp looked over the shoulders of the police, emphasizing “rollout” teams of investigators that were dispatched to every scene where officers wounded or killed a person. Conservative law-enforcement leaders such as Culver City Police Chief Ted Cooke were outraged by his posture: “All of a sudden, the police officers of this county looked at the district attorney as an enemy trying to get them, not someone who will assist them.”

The issue of capital punishment is especially telling about the conflicts brought about by Van de Kamp’s personal views and his role as a government attorney. Here is a man opposed to capital punishment who is campaigning proudly as the prosecutor who sent more men to Death Row than anyone else in California history.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1974, he denounced the death penalty as “barbaric” and “a blot on the American system of justice.” Without changing his personal views, he now is sponsoring an anti-crime ballot proposition for November with provisions to expand the number of murderers liable for California’s death penalty. And by his own words--"I will oversee executions"--he has convinced both sides in the debate that he will not flinch when the time comes for a backlog of 300 condemned men to be marched into the gas chamber.

Abortion is the other moral dilemma that raises a question about Van de Kamp’s convictions. As a Roman Catholic faithful to teachings of the church, he personally opposes abortion. But as a candidate, he has thrust himself to the front line as champion of the right to obtain abortions. A woman’s right to choose, he says, “is one of the most important issues that confronts our society. . . . I, like most Califor nians, believe the choice must be left to the woman.”

At the same time, Van de Kamp, the lawyer, defended the Legislature and governor for five unsuccessful years in their efforts to prohibit the use of taxpayer Medi-Cal benefits for abortions. All along, he disagreed with the law but said he was doing his sworn duty as attorney general. (He declined to pursue such appeals the past two years, saying nothing had occurred to change the legal circumstances. The governor hired private counsel to press appeals, but they were unsuccessful.)

Likewise, he now defends in court a state law preventing pregnant teens from obtaining abortions without the consent of their parents. And he has appealed a ruling sought by women’s groups to restore full state financing for family planning clinics. In both cases, he says he is simply doing his duty to uphold state laws--even though he personally disagrees with each of the policies.

As Van de Kamp views it, nothing could show more integrity than standing up as he has in the name of duty. “If the question is whether I’m so hidebound by this tradition that I’m paralyzed and nothing is going to happen, that’s just not right,” he says. “The lawyer training in me, especially the training as a prosecutor, means that I keep an open mind. I try not to make a snap judgment. I want a range of choices.”

But upholding the law has not precluded a little politicking, even showboating. In recent years, Van de Kamp the attorney general has been more aggressive in trying to get out front on a variety of issues. He has taken up a costly antitrust wrangle on behalf of consumers in opposing the merger of the Lucky and Alpha Beta supermarket chains. He joined with attorneys general across the country in filing an antitrust suit against the insurance industry; the industry won. He extracted record penalties from an oil company for polluting San Francisco Bay and was in the forefront of a landmark settlement that restricts development at Lake Tahoe. He fought industry and Gov. Deukmejian, demanding more stringent interpretations of Proposition 65, the anti-toxics ballot measure passed by voters in 1986.

Still, Van de Kamp’s opponents are convinced that there is too much attorney in the attorney general. “There are a lot of lawyers in politics. Some would say too many. And this is going to be a problem for him,” says Darry Sragow, campaign manager for rival Democratic candidate Dianne Feinstein, and himself a lawyer. “Voters want people who stand up for what they believe in. They don’t expect to agree with a candidate on everything, but they want integrity, not dissonance.”

The Van de Kamp forces say that, as governor, he will no longer be so constrained as he has been as attorney general. To them, the campaign will be fought out over actions and agendas, not buzzwords and sentiments. “How he will feel (about executing those on Death Row when the time comes)? I don’t know. But I do know what he will do when he gets the call,” says Van de Kamp’s press aide, Duane Peterson. “He will go over to the bookshelf and pull down the binder on the death penalty, read it as to the law and the steps that have to be taken.”


EVEN RELAXED, John Van de Kamp’s face is what you might call semi-pooch. Bags pooch under wide-set, wet eyes. Cheeks pooch out as if beanbags are lodged there. But the overriding impression is youthful, and just a dash doleful. Time has not made a deep mark on his face, nor has hardship. There is a feeling that this man has never had a flat tire--that he’s never been knocked down, or flattened.

“I think there’s some truth in that, in the sense that my life has not had wild swings,” he says. “Most of the things that were bothersome were fairly small along the line.” His life, he admits, has always been comfortable, his politics shaped by a form of noblesse oblige instilled in private schools.

The Van de Kamp family has enjoyed wealth, standing and society-page position since John was a child but, he is careful to stress, the family’s beginnings were modest.

“There!” he says, stopping a huge undercover police cruiser he’s been driving along the back roads of Altadena. He points to the one-story, tile-roof hillside tract home that stands today, the house where his family lived in 1936 when he was born. Van de Kamp is driving without a seat belt and with his Department of Justice parking pass at the ready for when he stops.

“We played kick-the-can on summer nights,” he recalls. “The war was on, there was an anti-aircraft battery stationed in back of us in a vacant lot. We used to take our toy guns and go over and play soldier. . . . The smog was worse then, yellow and sulfuric.”

The family came west from Milwaukee at the end of World War I. Harry, his father, was a teller at Security First National Bank and the youngest brother of the family that started the Van de Kamp bakery business. His mother, Georgie, was a third-grade teacher, a graduate of San Jose State. “This idea John was born with a silver spoon, it’s just not right,” says Georgie Van de Kamp, still vigorous at 83.

John’s uncles, whose first enterprise was selling potato chips, were pioneers in the Southern California food industry and remembered chiefly for their bakeries. But they also founded restaurants, beginning in 1922 with the Tam O’Shanter Inn, still a landmark on Los Feliz Boulevard. Harry was drawn to the restaurant end of the family business when Lawry’s The Prime Rib (which the family pronounces Lorrie’s) was opened in 1939 on La Cienega Boulevard, across the street from its current location. In the 1940s, these family entrepreneurs blazed the way to a whole new industry --"convenience foods.”

The bakeries were sold to Pillsbury. Today, only the restaurants, which include the Five Crowns in Corona del Mar and Lawry’s in Dallas and Chicago, remain in the hands of his immediate family, his mother and his cousin Richard Frank, who has managed the business. The family is thinking about expanding overseas, considering that so many customers here are Japanese tourists with a taste for prime rib.

As the family moved financially up from the middle class, it moved geographically down from Altadena into the Arroyo neighborhood of comfortable, pink-stucco, trust-fund Pasadena. John, his mother remembers, “was a reserved boy without much of a social life. He was quiet and he read a lot. He didn’t have lots of friends, but everyone liked him.”

He grew up different from other San Gabriel Valley youngsters in one important regard. From the fifth grade to ninth grade, skipping eighth, he attended Trailfinders--a private school in Altadena with 40 other boys. It was an outdoorsy school, “rough and ready,” he recalls. Lots of camping, rock climbing, skinny dipping in the icy Sierra lakes.

Van de Kamp traces his liberal roots--back then called “social consciousness"--to the inspiration and gentle reasoning of the school’s owner, the late Harry James. James called on the students to study and appreciate the culture of native American Indians and to read works by Socialist politician Henry Wallace. Van de Kamp’s belief in the power of the written word came from the teachings of Grace James, who said words are the “impressions of your mind.” Perhaps that explains why his conversational vocabulary ranges from mild vulgarity to courtly idiom with words such as equipoise .

After Trailfinders, he returned to public schools, including Pasadena’s John Muir High School. He went to Dartmouth at 16 and landed on the campus radio station on the strength of his husky, resonant voice. He interned one summer as a mail clerk at ABC, grew disillusioned watching the “back stabbing and unpleasantness” of the broadcasting business and abandoned plans to make it his career.

He went to law school at Stanford and was graduated in 1959. “The dullest period of my life,” he says of law school. “Thank God for the ’59 Dodgers. That’s the only thing that kept me alive through the bar exam.”

The bright young lawyer enlisted in the National Guard. In the ways known only to the Army, Van de Kamp was made a private first class and trained for six months as a tank commander at Ft. Knox.

Except for one dreary summer counting crullers in the shipping office, Van de Kamp had nothing to do with and no direct financial interest in the bakeries. But he shares the family’s wealth from the restaurants. Van de Kamp estimates his net worth today at $800,000, and he stands to share with his younger sister, Gretchen, a Northern California housewife, the inheritance of a trust fund held by his mother. He estimates its value at $1.5 million. Financial reports filed with the state show the trust is invested in blue-ribbon stocks in everything from tobacco to department stores.

Not money, but intellectual curiosity and the social connections that come from his background and his years in public life are the real source of his influence and his satisfaction. Van de Kamp knows the movie moguls, the television studio barons and the leaders of The Times--and is up-to-date on the executive-suite comings and goings of all three. He and his wife, Andrea, are frequently photographed by society publications. His friends sit on the bench, his friends are the premiere lawyers of the day; but he also has friends in broadcast journalism, a friend who owns a bookstore, an artist friend.

Van de Kamp is a conversationalist of uncommon reach and recall. Civic history or street-corner preachers, morale in the legal profession and the New York Review of Books, the value of contemporary California artists such as Helen Pashgian, craftsmanship in woodworking, California mission-style furniture, Toscanini, and (ahhhhh, yes) baseball--these are his kinds of interests. “A superior set of brains,” says Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr.

You like jazz? Yes, he knew the late pianist Hampton Hawes personally, and arranged a presidential commutation of a heroin possession sentence for Hawes. You like books? V. S. Naipaul’s 1962 book, “The Middle Passage,” a collection of impressions about European societies in the West Indies, is what he is reading now. Later, he marvels that George Higgins can write such authentic courthouse dialogue in his crime fiction. Van de Kamp has been in the courthouse and knows how it sounds. He says he does not watch much TV and has never seen “L.A. Law” from start to finish. But, according to Andrea, his interest and appreciation of music (he does not play) are so refined that he can weigh the strength of the violin section against the quality of the rest of the orchestra. He has a memory that some believe is nearly photographic. Baseball trivia comes easily; he knows the ERAs of A’s pitchers back to the 1940s.

His wife says that to grasp John, you must see him at play, and that’s easiest at the race track. The 1986 Kentucky Derby stands out in her mind. John and a friend split a $100 bet on a 17-to-1 long-shot, which finished first. “I’d never heard him yell before,” she says. “And I heard words that I didn’t know he knew. I must say, he was quite articulate with them.”

Although no longer in the horse business, Van de Kamp still finds the track a recreational get-away four or five times a year. In the early 1970s, he and two associates were partners in five race horses. Incongruously, the group’s name was Free Spirit Stables. Its forgettable contenders included Bold Offset--old B.O., as Van de Kamp remembers him--and a $12,000 claimer named Deceived. “Our one big success,” Van de Kamp recalls, laughing, “Eeeeeeecch!” He laughs backward, not on the exhale but as he draws his breath.

He is not particularly well-traveled, having been only to Europe, Mexico and Israel. Food and fashion do not seem to interest him. He is so clumsy, he can barely get the lid on the Tupperware. Tennis and golf are pastimes he rarely gets to these days, although he was a tournament tennis player in high school.

He’s more likely to spend free time at home, enjoying the family’s broad-fronted, two-story Monterey colonial, built on what he calls a “fill-in” lot among the gated mansions south of the Rose Bowl. The yard is vast, the house less so, a property worth perhaps $1 million. This home is not the invention of a designer. Mission furniture is mixed with contemporary pieces in stainless steel and a full-size chair made out of beer cans; the colors are subdued, the den an open jumble for family living. It reflects the Van de Kamps and their one child, freckle-faced fifth-grader Diana. (“Don’t write anything bad about my daddy,” she asks.)

Van de Kamp knows the artists who did the paintings on his walls--which include a David Hockney print entitled “Tian An Men Square.” “These are basically things that go through our lives in some way,” he explains about the family possessions.

In truth, the family taste is defined more by Andrea, a fast-track career woman and former Dartmouth College admissions dean who was recently hired as managing director of Sotheby’s West Coast auction house. Before that, she was public-affairs director of Carter Hawley Hale department stores, and has helped raise huge sums for the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tall, toothsome and utterly confident, she tackles politics with a 50,000-watt smile and a zest that no spouse in more than a generation has brought to the California campaign trail.

If Van de Kamp wins the election, it will be the first time a governor has had to face the contemporary problems of spouses with separate careers in separate cities. Andrea says there is no question she will continue working. “Why mess up a good recipe?” But as First Lady, she also would like to champion the arts. “I believe people do not think bad things or do bad things when they are surrounded by art and music.”

“If you could just merge the Van de Kamps,” says Joe Cerrell, the dean of California Democratic political consultants, somewhat wistfully. “If he just had Andrea’s personality, why, he’d be hell to stop, ever.”


AT VAN DE KAMP headquarters, the political elders smile at the scorn leveled at their candidate: Let him be painted so dull and insipid that if he just gets through a speech without putting himself to sleep it’s a pleasant surprise. Anyone who watched George Bush’s sucker punch on the “wimp issue” in the 1988 campaign understands this game of artificially low expectations.

A tougher chore will be assembling a 51% constituency in a state that leans so stubbornly toward the GOP and away from workaday liberals. Equally tough will be broadening his financial support from a base of trial lawyers and labor unions and raising the millions of dollars needed not only for a contested June primary against Feinstein but to match the $20 million or so that Wilson is likely to spend for November. As he hunts for Democratic support, Van de Kamp’s representation of the Republican Deukmejian Administration as attorney general is a potential liability on issues ranging from the environment to the savings-and-loan scandals, areas where critics say the state has been lax. And not the least challenge is keeping his campaign from getting entangled in the afterlife of a sensational murder case.

“We’re not going to get into a debate over the past,” says Van de Kamp manager Richie Ross. “We have moved this campaign into the future.” And no wonder, reply his opponents. In the past lies one of Van de Kamp’s major vulnerabilities: his handling of the Hillside Strangler case. It’s an episode that goes to the very heart of Van de Kamp’s advertised strengths--his judgment, his managerial acumen and his standing as a law-and-order Democrat.

The facts are not in dispute: In 1981, Van de Kamp, as the district attorney of Los Angeles, was faced with the most dramatic case of his life, the sex murders of 10 young women whose bodies were dumped on Los Angeles-area hillsides.

One suspect, Kenneth Bianchi, a one-time security guard who dreamed of being a policeman, accepted guilt for five killings in a plea bargain that spared him the death penalty. He agreed to be the key witness against his accomplice and cousin, Angelo Buono, a Glendale auto upholsterer. Subsequently, Bianchi began changing his story to investigators. Doubt emerged about his reliability as a witness. So great became the doubts that senior prosecutors ultimately recommended dropping the murder charges and prosecuting Buono on lesser sex crimes involving other women for which there were corroborating witnesses. That would have meant bail at perhaps $50,000.

Van de Kamp approved the plan. Superior Court Judge Ronald George did not. He boldly ordered the capital case to continue. It was transferred to then-Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian, whose office ultimately secured Buono’s conviction for nine of 10 murders after a sensational trial. Buono was sentenced to life without parole.

Both Feinstein and Wilson have promised to hammer at this case, and even neutral Democrats concede that it poses problems for Van de Kamp. “It’s not just a Republican pipe dream that the Angelo Buono affair is going to be damaging,” says state Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles, a Democrat. “If you represent an area like mine that was terrorized during the Hillside Strangler episode, one wonders how in the world the attorney general is going to answer that.”

“We made an error in that case and I take full responsibility,” replies Van de Kamp.

The simplest explanation of his action is that he relied on trusted aides, who in turn made their best judgments after studying the available evidence. Plainly, Van de Kamp did not spot the weakness in their perceptions, and neither did he seek a broader re-evaluation of the case before making his decision. Deukmejian’s office took a fresh look at the evidence, including some fabric fibers linking the victims to Buono, and decided to proceed.

“To this day, it’s hard to understand Van de Kamp and those who were working on the case,” says Michael Nash, one of the successful prosecutors in the case, who is now a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. “It’s hard to see why they thought the evidence wasn’t strong enough. We felt from the beginning that it was.” But Nash is reluctant to single out Van de Kamp for blame, saying: “I think he relied to a certain extent on the prosecutors on the case, and I think he relied on some bad information.”

“In hindsight, it is clear I was wrong in my assessment of the strength of the evidence,” Van de Kamp said in a 1989 letter to the editor of the Sacramento Bee after a columnist raised the issue. “But any suggestion that this error points to an unwillingness to aggressively prosecute criminals--including the death penalty cases--is also wrong.”

Five years earlier, however, Van de Kamp acknowledged his own doubts about the guilt of the accused. An interview with a Times reporter went like this:

Question: It was your belief at the time of the motion for dismissal that Buono was guilty?

Answer: Didn’t know; wasn’t sure.

Van de Kamp appeals to the “fair-mindedness” of voters, and asks that they dwell not just on one notorious case but also consider the other 850,000 cases that went through the office during his years as district attorney.

Facing this kind of scrutiny is a novel challenge for Van de Kamp, who has managed to spend two decades in politics without encountering a close race, including his one electoral defeat. He didn’t come up fighting from the school board or City Hall. He was drafted into the business. And when that didn’t work, he was appointed to it.

In 1969, some San Fernando Valley Democrats and labor leaders needed a candidate. They wanted to make sure that Republican Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the famous senator and presidential candidate, would not get a free ride to Congress. Van de Kamp was invited to return from Washington to audition, and, without time to pack clothes, became a candidate. After a congressional race that lasted 60 days, he lost, 57% to 43%. But he did not lose interest.

In 1975, the liberal-controlled county Board of Supervisors appointed Van de Kamp as Los Angeles district attorney, a nonpartisan office, filling a vacancy created by the death of incumbent Joseph P. Busch. The next year, Van de Kamp was reelected, 52% to 36%, over Vincent T. Bugliosi, prosecutor of the Charles Manson gang. In 1980, Van de Kamp once again strolled to reelection, over one of his deputy district attorneys, Sidney Trapp.

In June, 1982, Van de Kamp won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, going on to win in November, 54% to 42%. He was reelected in 1986, 66% to 30%, over Bruce Gleason, a Republican lawyer so obscure he had to wear a name tag to get into campaign events.

By 1987, he had made up his mind to run for governor and started campaigning on a promise to lead California “into a new decade of action and common purpose.” His chief rivals, Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, and Wilson, the second-term U.S. senator from San Diego, followed with their announcements. It looked to be a conventional race among well-known politicians--gritty and predictable. Only Feinstein had sparkle.

The top professionals brought in to advise Van de Kamp--national advertising guru Robert Shrum, Washington strategist David Doak, baby-boomer pollster Paul Maslin, and brassy Sacramento campaign manager Ross--added up the situation for him: With a low-profile record like his, and given the ammunition his opponents have in the Hillside Strangler episode, Ross says, “the only way to win was if he was willing to risk losing.”

For a couple of months this past spring, Van de Kamp made no news and no speeches, and the public opinion polls showed him behind. He pondered, and then he agreed to the advice of the professionals. “This guy didn’t blink,” Ross says. “He is a strong man. And strong people can step into new roles.”

So they launched a strategy designed to bring his campaign instant support--with the added advantage of making instant enemies, something that is helping him break free of his insider image. At the core of the plan is a simple device: linking Van de Kamp’s candidacy to three ballot initiatives. Vote for me, vote for my platform, that is the idea.

“I’m going to run a campaign like none you’ve ever seen before,” he promises. “All my years in politics I’ve heard people complain that they never really have a choice--politicians are all alike; they make the same promises and do nothing, Tweedledee versus Tweedledum. It’s why so many people don’t even bother to vote.”

Plank No. 1, crafted with the help of the activist group Common Cause, is aimed at “draining the ethical swamp” of special interests in Sacramento and is the one causing the biggest flap. It would limit campaign spending, offer taxpayer financing for candidates, impose a broad code of ethics on elected officials and limit statewide officials to two terms of office and of legislators to 12 years in office. Predictably, it has legislators fuming.

“He’s the phoniest person I’ve ever met in politics,” says Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-La Mesa), who sees nothing but raw expediency in a lifelong politician to suddenly calling for arbitrary limits on public service. And a significant number of Sacramento legislators believe that there is more than the campaign at stake--that even if he wins, Van de Kamp has fouled his relationship with those he needs. “I don’t want another governor who can’t get along with the Legislature. If you run against the Legislature, maybe you can get elected, but you can’t govern,” Democratic state Sen. Barry Keene of Benicia told Van de Kamp in a letter. Says Wilson aide Bos: “We haven’t heard a peep from John Van de Kamp on this issue of ethics. Only now that it’s politically expedient does he posture as Mr. Outsider while all along he has happily been partaking as Mr. Insider. I think frankly the public is not going to buy that.”

“John Van de Kamp has embraced the notion that people want a greater say in their affairs, and he’s shown that it’s not going to be business as usual in Sacramento,” replies Ross. “That’s the way it’s been up there for 15 years--like the World Wrestling Federation: Fat white guys pretending to hurt each other. No more. John Van de Kamp has entered the ring with a campaign about change. And that means hurting the guys on the top.”

Plank No. 2, produced in alliance with major environmental groups, is a proposition to phase out potentially hazardous pesticides, outlaw ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons, prepare the state for a possible offshore oil spill and institute tree-planting as part of California’s development ethic. California Farm Bureau President Bob L. Vice calls it an “extremely radical” proposal that could jeopardize food supplies by cutting back on growers’ ability to control pests with chemicals.

Van de Kamp’s third plank addresses drugs, speedy trials and prisons, much of the content copied from an initiative that is backed by Wilson and by crime victims’ groups and most district attorneys in the state. Van de Kamp says he now supports efforts to expedite jury selection and preliminary hearings and make it easier to seek the death penalty by redefining the concept of “premeditation,” actions he formerly opposed. But his proposal goes further than the one supported by Wilson and promises $1.7 billion in the coming years to establish an anti-drug “super fund”; 60% of the money would go to enforcement and prosecution, 40% to treatment and prevention. Businesses would pay through a loss of state tax deductions.

Abortion rights are caught up in the initiative fight, too. The crime initiative backed by Wilson modifies the privacy provisions of the state Constitution in criminal cases, saying they should be construed in accordance with the U.S. Constitution, which contains no explicit right to privacy. Van de Kamp insists that that initiative could later jeopardize a woman’s freedom of choice, if the state should make abortion a crime. The attorney general’s version specifically protects those rights.

The effect of the overall strategy has been measurable. Polls at the end of 1989 put him ahead of Feinstein in the primary and dead even with Wilson in the general election. Because such early polls are often nearly meaningless, perhaps more important has been the psychological impact: Van de Kamp--for now--is making the headlines and setting the contours of this early campaigning. It didn’t hurt that Feinstein was slowed down by surgery and some squabbling over who her top managers would be.

Nonetheless, Wilson aide Bos says it’s far too early to assess the effect of Van de Kamp’s propositions, which still must be qualified for the ballot. “They haven’t even started to be scrutinized yet. At first blush, everyone says, ‘Yeah, great.’ But who hasn’t seen something climb up in the polls and then tumble down?” he asks. Wilson has said that the initiatives are a pale substitute for real leadership. “We think they translate to a confirmation of weakness,” Bos says.

Feinstein, too, has ridiculed Van de Kamp’s trio of initiatives. “John Van de Kamp has spent more than a dozen years in elective office,” she said, “and the voters of California have nothing to show for it. The Van de Kamp ‘initiatives du jour’ notwithstanding, they still don’t.”

At the start of this campaign, all three major candidates shared certain assumptions: After a period of retrenchment, people want the state to forge ahead. The candidates share similar goals--better schools, improved transportation, less tolerance for crime and pollution. But, the strategists believe, aside from perhaps abortion and crime, voters are not interested in hot fights over ideology. Wilson has moved from the right to the center, leaving behind some of his more conservative constituents. Van de Kamp has ambled over from the left, and some liberals feel forgotten. Feinstein hovers close to the middle.

Although campaigns are tricky to predict, the clashes of this one are apt to be over questions of character and priorities, tactics and experience, not fundamental differences of direction or dreams. In the primary, Van de Kamp can claim a strong base in the huge Southern California media market. This has forced Feinstein to buy a condominium in Century City so that she can spend more time in Southern California and gain recognition here. Many strategists, however, feel that Feinstein ultimately will have a strong natural appeal to women voters, and this has forced the attorney general into a scramble for endorsements from women’s groups.

With his initiatives strategy, Van de Kamp believes, he has finally shed his role as someone else’s attorney. The tantalizing prospect of governing California, of piloting its course into a new decade, seems to be limbering him up. His mother describes him as “blossoming” under the change. Friends say he is “liberated . . . having the time of his life.” Barbara Johnson, campaign chair and longtime associate, says the difference is as easy to grasp as the difference between a lawyer bound to precedent and a candidate determined to break free of it.

The fact is, Van de Kamp is getting incrementally better on the stump. His announcer’s voice carries authority. His timing shows practice. He is not one of those politicians who thinks himself perfect, so he willingly yields to polishing from his coterie of campaign experts.

He uses a fable to tell audiences about the swerve in his campaign. “A few years ago, a little girl told her Sunday school that she was going to draw a picture of God,” he says. “ ‘But nobody knows what God looks like,’ the teacher said. And the little girl answered, ‘They will after I finish my picture.’ ”

Van de Kamp is now beginning to fill in the picture of his own leadership ability.

Times researcher Doug Conner assisted with this story.