John Van de Kamp stood Saturday with people who, like him, are underdogs.

In a poor west Oakland neighborhood once shadowed by the ill-fated Nimitz Freeway, Van de Kamp defended a community-backed plan to reroute the double-decked roadway that fell and crushed 42 people in last October’s Bay Area earthquake.

Crossing town to address a convention of letter carriers, he vowed that he would epitomize the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt and eschew the greed he said personified the Ronald Reagan era.

At times Saturday, it appeared that Van de Kamp was running against two men who have occupied the California governor’s office--former President Reagan and his ideological soul mate, George Deukmejian--rather than his true opponent, Dianne Feinstein.


In reality, Van de Kamp was reaching out to a Democrat’s most traditional constituency--the poor, minorities and organized labor--hoping that they would be the most likely to vote in the June primary.

He painted a terse contrast Saturday between himself and the former San Francisco mayor, who, according to a Times poll published Saturday, holds an 11-point lead with but nine days to go.

“I am a Democrat, and I’m proud of it,” he told several hundred members of the California State Assn. of Letter Carriers.

As for Feinstein, he said, “She’s ending up standing next to George Deukmejian and shaking hands with the ghost of Ronald Reagan. She’s ending up putting the poor, the blind and the disabled up on the chopping block.”

While Feinstein is adopting a leisurely pace in the campaign’s closing days, Van de Kamp appears to be escalating his. On Saturday he began a three-day trip through Northern and Central California to lobby for voter approval of transit bonds, the gas tax and, not incidentally, himself.

On Saturday, he hopped from two appearances in Oakland to a Sacramento jazz festival. Today he will attend church in the capital before taking a bus-and-train journey through the upper Central Valley to Fresno.

Van de Kamp has displayed a populist streak throughout his campaign for governor, chiefly by touting November ballot initiatives on ethics, crime and the environment. But that strategy has failed to generate sufficient spark to catch Feinstein.

He humanized the pitch Saturday, reassuring residents here that if Californians approve three transportation initiatives on the June ballot--and elect him--he will usher in a more sensitive era of freeway construction.


Voters who approve Propositions 108, 111 and 116, Van de Kamp said, “will not be paying for more monster freeways that crash through defenseless neighborhoods.” Together the three initiatives would raise more than $21 billion in the next decade for transportation. Van de Kamp said he would use the money to improve existing roads, make “modest expansions where necessary” and--most importantly--expand the use of rail lines.

He chose the west Oakland neighborhood because the Nimitz Freeway, or Interstate 880, was built through the area over the objections of residents. Community activists are battling to have the replacement roadway routed to the west, around the neighborhood.

Surrounded by the leaders of the rerouting fight on a dirt expanse where the freeway once stood, Van de Kamp endorsed their cause. “We shouldn’t destroy neighborhoods, and that’s what we’re dealing with right here,” he said.

Before the letter carriers’ labor group, which has endorsed him, Van de Kamp railed against Feinstein, Reagan and Deukmejian and linked them as opponents of the downtrodden.


Reiterating his call for increased taxes for those making more than $100,000 a year, he called on “all those who got a free ride and a fat tax break during the last eight years to start paying their fair share.”

“We can restore a little bit of social justice to our income tax system, so that a banker who makes $7.5 million a year doesn’t pay the same tax rate as a schoolteacher who makes $30,000,” he said in a clear reference to Feinstein’s husband, investment banker Richard C. Blum. The couple last year reported income of $7.4 million, chiefly from his business.

Van de Kamp remained upbeat Saturday despite his second place standing in the polls.

“I saw one again this morning that didn’t make a heckuva lot of sense,” he said, referring to The Times Poll, which showed support for the candidates relatively unchanged since February.


“It’s going to be a close race. A lot of the pollsters are going to be very surprised by the numbers on election night.”