Joseph Remcho, 58; Longtime Lawyer to State Democratic Party, Its Leaders

Times Staff Writer

Attorney Joseph Remcho, counselor to a generation of Democrats from Willie Brown to Gov. Gray Davis, died when the helicopter he was piloting crashed near the Sacramento River on Saturday.

Remcho, 58, a fixture in California Democratic politics and a 1st Amendment and elections law expert, represented the party and organized labor in an array of cases.

The Harvard-educated attorney successfully argued that various campaign finance restrictions imposed by initiatives were unconstitutional. He was among the attorneys who unsuccessfully sought to have legislative term limits ruled unconstitutional.

As word of his death spread Sunday, politicians from Davis and Brown to Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer offered testimonials. Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell observed a moment of silence at his swearing in on Sunday in the Assembly chambers.

"He was a total professional, very thorough, and eminently decent," Davis said in an interview. "He had a wonderful way about him and I trusted him implicitly."

In several cases over the years, Remcho argued against campaign finance limits, most recently seeking to have Proposition 208 of 1996 overturned as too restrictive. Many political reformers champion such measures. But Remcho viewed campaign spending restrictions as a violation of the 1st Amendment, contending that they limit the rights, often of organized labor, to advance their positions.

"We think it's perfectly OK to spend $1 billion to see 'Titanic,' " Remcho said recently, "but to spend $500 million on core political speech is somehow bad, because people have been told there is too much money in politics."

Remcho was not well known outside the appellate courts of California, the Capitol and the world of politics, noted Dean Tipps, executive secretary of the California State Council of Service Employees. But insiders knew that he had "tremendous impact."

"The man is at every level irreplaceable," Tipps said. "That is the beginning and end of what you say about him. He has been an integral part of everything we do."

Remcho headed a six-attorney firm, Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, based in San Leandro, south of Oakland. He and his partners had been planning a 20-year anniversary celebration for the firm, said his longtime partner, Robin Johansen.

Remcho had returned from a family vacation in Hawaii when he decided to take the helicopter he co-owned for a flight on Saturday. He was seen about 2 p.m. preparing his aircraft, a Schweizer, at Buchanan Field in Concord. He was alone.

About an hour and a half later, a boater on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta told authorities that a helicopter had crashed in a marsh on the north bank, a mile from the community of Collinsville, Solano County Sheriff's Sgt. Allen Sonnenburg said. National Transportation Safety Board investigators were expected to begin inspecting the helicopter today.

Remcho learned to fly while attending Yale University, where he obtained his undergraduate degree. He became so adept that he was qualified to fly commercial airliners, Johansen said. He began flying helicopters more recently.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown hired Remcho in 1981 to represent the Assembly's interests in reapportionment matters. Remcho's law firm continues to represent the Assembly and Assembly Democrats, despite various changes in leadership since Brown's departure in 1995.

"He never overrepresented what was possible," Brown said in an interview. "You never saw his name in the newspaper. He never became the issue -- and he never overcharged."

On several occasions, Remcho argued cases against a firm, Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, which for years represented the California Republican Party. Attorney Chip Nielsen said his firm recently hired Remcho to handle a pending matter -- and that Remcho promised to handle the matter at no charge.

Remcho had been mentioned over the years as a potential appointee to the California Supreme Court, particularly if Kathleen Brown had been elected governor in 1994.

"It would have been an appropriate appointment," Nielsen said.

Remcho is survived by his wife, Ronnie Caplane; a daughter, Morgan, a senior at Wellesley College; and a son, Sam, who attends the University of Colorado.

Services were pending.

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