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Thomas Murray fondly recalls a day about 20 years ago when he and friend John Van de Kamp attended the horse races at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. After the close of the races, traffic was bumper to bumper, and several stout, drunken, young men started yelling at each other and puffing out their chests, eager to fight after a minor fender bender at one exit. All of a sudden, Van de Kamp, then California’s attorney general, stepped out of his car. “He says to them in his best, deep baritone voice, ‘All right, break it up. We want to go home. Cut it out,’” Murray, an obstetrician in Millbrook, N.Y., says. “He didn’t identify himself or anything. And those guys jumped in their cars so fast. “It was a very, very brave act,” he says. “But he intimidated them with the authority of his presence.” That’s the quintessential Van de Kamp, Murray says — a confident leader who’s not afraid to take a stand and who’s willing to play peacemaker or ball breaker. There’s a famous 1989 Associated Press photo of then-AG Van de Kamp waving an AK-47 in the state Assembly to win support for limiting private ownership of assault weapons. “He’s the kind of guy you follow,” Murray says. That sentiment is echoed by many who say Van de Kamp will turn heads when he takes over as president of the State Bar of California on Saturday in Monterey at the organization’s annual meeting. “His is a voice that is respected,” says Gerald Uelmen, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law who has known Van de Kamp for about 40 years. “He’s been on both sides of so many burning issues that he really has a deep understanding of the issues and can bring people together.” Jesse Choper, the Earl Warren professor of public law at Boalt Hall School of Law, describes Van de Kamp as very thoughtful and reflective. “He also comes at it from a somewhat different perspective than you usually see in State Bar presidents,” Choper says. Does he ever. Besides serving as attorney general from 1983-91, Van de Kamp also was the Los Angeles County district attorney for eight years, served as the first federal public defender in L.A. and was director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys under Deputy AG Warren Christopher in Washington, D.C. He also ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1990, losing to Dianne Feinstein in the primary. As attorney general, he got not only the gun-control law passed, but also filed an antitrust suit on behalf of consumers that blocked the merger of the Lucky Stores and Alpha Beta supermarket chains. He also instituted a revolutionary fingerprint tracing system called Cal-I.D. that snagged Richard Ramirez, the infamous Night Stalker serial killer, and he proudly calls himself the “father of fast track,” which expedited civil trials in state courts. “Tell me anybody who has those kinds of background qualifications,” says Stephen Miller, of counsel in the L.A. office of Washington, D.C.’s Howrey Simon Arnold & White who worked with Van de Kamp as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Even back then, Miller says, Van de Kamp was a leader with strong principles that he gladly passed on to others. “He not only taught the younger assistants how to present a case in court, but more importantly he taught us the honest and fair approach to take in prosecuting a case,” says Miller, who currently partners with Van de Kamp in a small horse farm called Sidebar Stables. “One of the things he said to me: ‘If you’re not convinced that a person is guilty, don’t prosecute the case.’” Van de Kamp himself speaks reluctantly and modestly of his accomplishments, saying only that they will help him be a better State Bar president. He says he sees the Bar presidency as an extension of his years of public service, and he vowed while stumping for the position to use his one-year term to increase diversity within the profession, encourage pro bono service, improve the lives of lawyers and protect the public from unscrupulous attorneys. “The goal is to maintain the public protection side of the office, to expand the public member benefits, to develop professionalism and civility and do what we can to put lawyers in a fair light,” he said during an interview at his Pasadena home in late July. “People only read about the negatives, and there are some unsung heroes out there. The public deserves to see lawyers in a fair light.” DOWNTOWN TO UPTOWN Van de Kamp, 68, was born in Pasadena and has lived a good part of his life there. If the city needs a public relations man, it should hire Van de Kamp, who provides a better tour than Gray Line. On a sunny summer afternoon, he drives the tree-lined streets of the city, pointing out the house he bought with a view of the Rose Bowl for $37,500 in 1971, and sold for a much larger sum — he won’t say how much — when he moved to his current home a few miles away in 1987. He raves about the Norton Simon Museum with its Monets and Manets, the St. Andrew Catholic Church where he is a lector and the newly robust downtown that was fairly seedy, and exciting, in his youth. “One morning a preacher would try to save you,” he says, “and the next morning a prostitute would try to save you.” Van de Kamp had a humble beginning. His dad was a bank teller and his mom a third-grade schoolteacher. Van de Kamp says he met his first lawyer when a local barrister — “who was a little threadbare” — came to his school and spoke about his work. “It was an eye opener,” says Van de Kamp, who began stealing off to Los Angeles to watch trials. After graduating from Dartmouth College, he went on to Stanford Law School and the start of a storied career. Van de Kamp now travels in high circles. His wife, Andrea, chaired the Los Angeles Music Center for many years and guided fund raising for the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The two rub shoulders with movie moguls, financiers and powerful politicians. Van de Kamp’s work space at home has a photograph of him standing with President Lyndon Johnson and one of him throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for the San Diego Padres this year. He’s also got a lucrative stake in the family business, the immensely popular five-star restaurant chain Lawry’s The Prime Rib. Founded by his father’s brothers on L.A.’s La Cienega Boulevard in the 1930s, the chain now has restaurants in Dallas, Chicago, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Singapore and Jakarta, Indonesia. But ask Van de Kamp his true passion, and he’ll tell you it’s horse racing. He’s got that partnership in his own stables — whose first horse, Ol’ Charlie Boy, won his first three races — and he served eight years as president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, stepping down recently to devote full time to the State Bar presidency. Why State Bar president? It’s certainly not as high profile as his past jobs, and it will require him to gain consensus among the 22 strong-willed — and sometimes cantankerous — members of the Board of Governors. “It’s just so Van de Kamp,” Uelmen says, “because this guy is so motivated to public service. He really loves the legal profession, and he’s devoted to advancing it.” Murray says, “At his age, it’s the logical extension of everything he’s done. This is something where he again feels he can do good.” A DIFFERENT KIND OF TOUGH Paul Walker, managing partner of the L.A. office of New York’s Dewey Ballantine, calls Van de Kamp, an of counsel at the firm, a man with “no edges” who is “very easily accessible.” But he says not to mistake that for being soft. “You don’t have to have edges to be tough,” Walker says. “He’s a confident guy, so he’ll do what he needs to do in any situation.” Van de Kamp’s already talking tough. Two months ago, he advised a fellow State Bar governor to “put up or shut up” on allegations that Bar officials pamper wayward lawyers. He’s also intent on fortifying the discipline system by making sure the worst attorneys are reined in and to force them to pony up the costs of their own prosecutions in the State Bar Court. “Why should I pay all the costs for a guy who caused his own trouble?” he said. “Why should 196,000 members of the Bar basically pay for all the costs of prosecuting people who violated their oath?” One thing for sure is that with his past experiences, Van de Kamp won’t shy away from pushing his agenda. And he’s got his sleeves rolled up and is ready to dig in. “I’m not going to be able to wave a magic wand and get things done,” he says. “I’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.”

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