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Friends, colleagues gather to remember Democratic strategist Kam Kuwata

May 2, 2011 |  5:23 am

As the sun set at Santa Monica beach, friends, colleagues and old political teammates of Kam Kuwata gathered Sunday for a round of drinking, schmoozing and toasting in honor of the late Democratic strategist.

The gathering was large -- several hundred, befitting the affection Kuwata engendered -- and mostly upbeat, which reflected the buoyancy and good nature the affable Kuwata brought to the often nasty business of campaigning.

There was a retinue of politicians who Kuwata served -- including former California Gov. Gray Davis and ex-Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn -- many of the state's top-shelf Democratic strategists, including Gale Kaufman, Ace Smith, Steve Glazer and Garry South, a large contingent of reporters, and even a few members of the opposing team, among them GOP adman Mike Murphy.

But the eulogies were brief and limited to just three speakers: Kim Cranston, son of the late Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston; Bill Carrick, Kuwata's friend and longtime business partner; and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who managed to make a bit of a splash by preempting the president to announce the killing of Osama bin Laden. (More on that in a moment.)

Kuwata began his paid political career in the mail room of Cranston's Washington office, rising through the ranks to become the senator's California spokesman and one of his leading campaign strategists. Kim Cranston succinctly summarized Kuwata's life philosophy and contribution to the California commonweal: "Making a difference and having fun."

Carrick spoke of the 10 campaigns he and Kuwata waged together -- No. 11 was going to be Feinstein's 2012 reelection bid -- and read a touching letter sent by members of Kuwata's family. He is survived by his 90-year-old mother, a brother, sister-in-law and two nieces.

Carrick also announced creation of an annual award at USC, Kuwata's alma mater, to pay for a student to work on a political campaign of his or her choosing.

"There's no better way to honor Kam then to get young people involved in politics," Carrick said.

Feinstein, speaking off the cuff, described Kuwata as "a happy warrior, a smiling Buddha," and chastised herself and others for not paying closer heed to his circumstances; Kuwata died alone, of an apparent heart attack, and his body was not discovered at his Venice Beach condominium until about two weeks later.

Feinstein urged those in the audience, some of them sniffling and dabbing at tears, to become more involved in the lives of their friends and family.

"No one knows how. No one knows when. No one knows why," Feinstein said, suggesting that if people had paid closer attention, there may have been some warning sign before Kuwata was stricken.

The Bin Laden bombshell came at the end of her remarks, drawing audible gasps. Unknown to those in attendance was that President Obama had called a hasty late-night news conference in Washington to deliver the news. When Feinstein spoke, however, Obama had yet to address the nation.

Feinstein, as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is privy to some of the nation's most important secrets. She was apparently among the top congressional members briefed by administration officials before the president spoke on live TV from the East Room of the White House.

"Well, Dianne," Hope Warschaw, a longtime Democratic activist and hostess of the event, said after Feinstein stepped away from the lectern, "I can't top that."

Those assembled retired poolside, resumed their imbibing and immediately set to debating whether Feinstein had spoiled the event, even inadvertently, with the dramatic news, or honored Kuwata by using the occasion to make such a headline-grabbing announcement.

It was the kind of discussion -- topical, animated, over cocktails on a warm Southern California evening -- that Kuwata would have loved.

-- Mark Z. Barabak

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