Death of political consultant Kam Kuwata stuns California Democrats

McClatchy NewspapersApril 12, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The body of highly regarded Democratic political consultant Kam Kuwata was found in his Southern California condominium Monday, sending shock waves that reached all the way to Capitol Hill.

Kuwata was 57, a wily and good-humored operator who helped some of California's most well-known politicians win election time and time again.

"He was a political wonk, who loved campaigns," said Mark Kadesh, former chief of staff for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "He was also one of the nicest, most sincere political professionals I have ever known."

In a statement, Feinstein added that she was "deeply saddened" at Kuwata's death, which she said was a reminder of "how short life is."

"California has lost a sharp political mind," Feinstein said, "and I've lost a loyal and dear friend of more than 20 years."

The state Assembly adjourned in Kuwata's honor on Monday, just hours after word his passing surfaced.

"He would make sure that folks held their word," said Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar, his voice cracking.

Neither the cause of death nor its exact time was known Monday.

Los Angeles police officers found Kuwata's body on the office floor of his condo in Venice, according to an e-mail sent by a Kuwata family member. Friends and family members had reportedly alerted police after becoming concerned about not being able to reach him.

Out-of-touch was out-of-character for Kuwata. During a robust political career that began with service as a grunt for the late Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, Kuwata roamed through a famously wide universe of elected officials, newshounds, gossip-swappers and golfing buddies.

"Kam was the ultimate networker, maybe one of the original ones," said former Los Angeles-area congresswoman Jane Harman. "He operated at light speed. He also had a lot of personality, in what used to be a big body."

Kuwata was unmarried; or rather, Harman said, he was "married to politics." Once overweight, despite his passion for golf, he had in recent years slimmed down considerably and embraced a healthier lifestyle.

"He did have a love of the cigar, and the Maker's Mark (whiskey) and the bow tie," said Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles. "He was an elegant man."

Democratic strategist Bill Carrick added that Kuwata was known for his measured disposition and his ability to focus on campaign tasks.

"He was somebody who had enormous credibility, particularly with the media," Carrick said. "He wasn't someone who would just read talking points over and over again. He would actually engage in a conversation."

Steve Glazer, top political adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown and a friend of Kuwata, said he met Kuwata in the mid 1980s, when "we were both junior operatives" in statewide politics.

"He was a brilliant and passionate strategist," Glazer said. "He could fiercely advocate with a level of graciousness that would leave even an opponent pleased with the conversation and perspective."

Brown also issued a statement Monday, calling Kuwata "a knowledgeable and insightful voice in California politics. His analytical skills, coupled with his gentle approach to a tough business, earned him the respect and friendship of his allies and opponents alike. Kam's wisdom and graciousness will be missed."

Kuwata's professional reputation carried him at times into the national arena, as when he helped coordinate Democratic message operations during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. He also helped Hawaii's junior Democratic senator Daniel Akaka win election.

Mostly, though, Kuwata was known for his work in California. He worked for Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, helped successfully fight a San Fernando Valley secession effort and became closely associated with Feinstein's bids for statewide office.

"He was so solid, and so wise," said Andy Spahn, a prominent Los Angeles-based entertainment industry political consultant. "You always got a straight-forward analysis from him. If I ever wanted to check a hunch, he would be the first one I called."

Dan Smith and David Siders of The Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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