Man on a Mission

Former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp on capital punishment, jail reform and the need for police oversight

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 6/25/2015

Born in Huntington Hospital, raised in Altadena and Pasadena, educated at John Muir High School, then Dartmouth and later Stanford Law School, 79-year-old John Van de Kamp has been a force for good government in California for many years.


In 1966, Van de Kamp was appointed US Attorney in Los Angeles by President Lyndon Johnson, and later served as LA County District Attorney. 


In 1982, he was elected California Attorney General, a position in which he served for eight years.


In 1990, he ran for the Democratic nomination for governor against now-US Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein ultimately won that race but lost to Republican Pete Wilson. 


Van de Kamp retired from politics after that, but he continued to advise other candidates and has been called upon for his invaluable input on myriad issues over the years, serving on numerous boards and commissions that have helped shape local and state policy.


A longtime advocate of public schools and a member of the Pasadena Education Foundation, Van de Kamp chaired the Task Force on Good Government in 2005 and 2006, established to report on campaign finance reform and recommend ways to strengthen Measure B, which prohibited city officials from taking contributions from those awarded public money and other benefits.


The following year he chaired the state Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which found California’s death penalty system was wasteful and “dysfunctional,” costing taxpayers $100 million a year to simply maintain the system without executing a single prisoner since 2006, and with only 13 death sentences carried out since 1978.


“I’ve enjoyed those kinds of things because you’re making things right,” he said. “I enjoy them because I learn something new every day about life, some area that I had really not been acquainted with.”


Two years ago he became the chairman of his family’s restaurant business, which owns the Tam O’Shanter Inn in Atwater Village and Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, among other eateries.


Van de Kamp recently sat down with the Pasadena Weekly to talk about his opposition to capital punishment, the need for citizen oversight of Pasadena police, jail reform, and his support of newly elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

Pasadena Weekly: What do you think are the most pressing issues facing Pasadena today?

John Van de Kamp: A combination of things. It is growth, density, transportation, race relations, schools; all of which need to be addressed in a rational, careful way. We’re growing a little too fast, though on the other hand you have to stimulate the business community to bring jobs. You have to have a variety of different housing, but at the same time you need to preserve your historical neighborhoods and make sure that they’re cohesive, that they really are neighborhoods.

Do you think city politicians are following Measure B today?

We didn’t think [Measure B] was perfect, and the City Council watered it down a bit, but I think the important thing is we’re getting pretty good disclosure about campaign contributions. Let’s say a contractor is bidding [on a project]. In the old days they could try to influence the bidding process; we stopped that. The most important thing is you can read in the newspapers today who has how much money and where it’s coming from. You need to know those things.

How has your position on the death penalty changed over time?

It hasn’t. When I was in public office I raised my right hand, I swore to uphold the law, and we did. That’s what you do when you take public office. You have to support measures that you might not like, and try to deal with them as carefully as you can, and I like to think we tried to do that. Later, when I was out of office, I could express myself, and have, on the issue. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice that I chaired was asked to look at the death penalty. I put a lot of DAs and police and sheriffs on the commission to balance it out, so it would not be one ideological group that ran the commission because that was not going to gain any support. On the issue of capital punishment, we were virtually evenly divided, and that’s the way the public is today. Whether they’ll put it on the ballot again, I don’t know. But people realize it doesn’t work as a penalty.

Are you against the death penalty because of your Catholic faith?

Maybe. I never pinned it down [that way]. I have always believed that the taking of another human’s life is wrong under almost any circumstance unless it’s a self-defense situation. As long as you can provide public protection, and life in prison without parole can do that. If there’s been a wrongful conviction for some reason — it happens in some cases — you don’t put an innocent man to death, not that we’ve done much of that. And there’s always the potential of redemption. Not that the person’s going to get out, but at least they can have some kind of a positive influence.

You’ve said that Dianne Feinstein used your position on the death penalty against you in the 1990 primary for governor. Do you think that is the issue that cost you the nomination?

I don’t think that got very far. She won the race because she was a fresh figure who had a good public record. She’s very smart, she’s very able. And it was time, frankly, for a woman to get elected to higher office. I did not strike [voters as having] the kind of charisma, I guess, that you need to run for an office like that, so that’s that. She’s been an able public servant all these years, not that I always agree with her, but she usually ends up on the right side of most issues. She ran a good campaign from a technical standpoint against me. I gave her campaign manager and her great credit for that. She did not run a good campaign against Pete Wilson. She should have won that race.

Do you think you would have beaten Pete Wilson?

I don’t know. When I lost that election … you just move on, that’s what I did. I never ran again, but I’ve supported people and tried to help people who were running.

Do you think enough has been done with regard to reforming LA County jails?

I don’t know for sure, but probably not. I think that’s a work in progress. I admire the new sheriff. I would like to see him act a little more decisively about his upper staff, make decisions to bring new, fresh people in who are supportive of what he wants to do, but I think his heart is in the right place. He’s a decent guy and he has good experience. I supported him and I’m glad I did.


You also created quick response teams in cases of police officer-involved shootings. Are those still in place? Following all these recent police shootings, including here in Pasadena, is something more needed?

Yes, they’re still in place. I don’t know all the details, but they survived the test of time. I’m very supportive of civilian oversight. I’ve told the sheriff that. I think the cameras are probably a pretty good idea, but there needs to be some rules as to when you turn them on, when you turn them off, how you wear them, so forth and so on. But more and more we’re seeing these police shootings filmed, whether it’s by the police or by private parties. I think the openness that brings makes people think twice, and that’s a good thing.

Are you supportive of some kind of civilian oversight of the Pasadena Police Department?


Looking back on your career, where do you think you made the biggest impact?

Of all the offices I’ve served, I’ve never had more fun than when I established the federal public defender’s office. I put together a team of young lawyers and established what is today a very big office. We were able to help real people. People are in trouble, and we helped them to get through this or find a new way of getting on with their lives. As AG I was probably able to do more good in the long run because you’re operating on a much bigger stage and there is a much bigger variety of things that you can do. I was able to strengthen our law enforcement capacity in terms of forensic improvements. We established a computerized fingerprint system, we developed our crime labs, we got DNA started in California. We were active in the anti-trust world and stopped mergers. In the civil rights area, I wrote an opinion that said private golf clubs cannot discriminate if they have a liquor license, so women and minorities had to join the California Club, the Valley Hunt Club and other places. AIDS was developing as a major issue. I introduced legislation that would put California in the drug testing business, to do clinical trials like the FDA. There are a number of well-known people today who are alive because of this. But we still do not have an answer to AIDS. I talked to David Baltimore, the former Caltech president, and he thinks they’re about 10 years away from finding the answer.


*Story contains clarification on the number of capital punishments carried out by the state.