During an unsuccessful bid for statewide office, former State Sen. John DeCamp once corrected someone who noted he brought to the race good name recognition.
“I’ve got name recognition, but it’s not all good,” he said with his trademark cackle.
Indeed, the 16-year state legislator from Neligh who died last week was at the same time one of the most accomplished and controversial lawmakers the Nebraska Legislature has seen. The colorful DeCamp was a power broker and wheeler-dealer of the first order, a pivotal figure in the success or failure of countless bills during his run in the Statehouse from 1971 to 1987.
DeCamp proved a man of both accomplishment and controversy outside the Legislature, too. The former Army captain in Vietnam spearheaded efforts to airlift thousands of orphans from the country — but he was also the author of an infamous memo that fanned rumors of child abuse by prominent Omaha figures during a 1990 investigation of a savings and loan failure.
DeCamp died Thursday at the state Veterans Home in Norfolk, where he had lived for more than two years. He was 76. DeCamp had recently been suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses, his family said.
A colleague in the Legislature once said DeCamp was “attracted to controversy like a moth to flame.” DeCamp never shied away from such talk, saying he earned his reputation by being in the middle of the fray and getting things done.
“Controversy is a part of accomplishment,” he once said. “Find me a guy that isn’t controversial in some quarter and I’ll show you a guy that hasn’t done a damn thing in his life.”
That certainly can’t be said of DeCamp, who very early cut his own path in life.
A native of Neligh in northeast Nebraska, DeCamp ran away from home at age 13 after his parents separated. Over the next eight years he’d sell magazine subscriptions in Washington, D.C., spend time in a Minnesota boarding school, work as a cabin boy on a passenger liner and assist an American geologist working in Iran.
Despite not having a high school diploma, at age 21 he enrolled in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which then required only a high school “certificate of attendance.” It took him just five years to earn both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree.
DeCamp then enlisted in the Army and spent two years as an infantry captain in Vietnam. That’s where he met his wife, Nga, who worked for the U.S. government as a secretary.
In 1975 DeCamp was instrumental in organizing Operation Babylift, which placed some 2,800 children orphaned by the war in American and Canadian homes. He was honored in Washington for his efforts.
Vietnam is also where DeCamp launched his political career. In 1970 he filed for the Legislature from overseas and mailed home — postage-free — 20,000 letters promoting his campaign. He returned to the States in time for the general election and won.
In Lincoln, the new senator from Neligh showed he had the wit, smarts, eloquence and determination to become a major player in Nebraska’s unique 49-member, one-house lawmaking body. He soon was getting his hand into nearly every big issue, becoming a major negotiator and backroom dealer.
Before long, lobbyists, aides to governors and fellow senators were beating paths to his first-floor office or hobnobbing with him after hours at the Nebraska Club.
He’d help a senator on his bill and collect an IOU he could cash in later. He searched for compromise, married unrelated issues, cut deals, counted votes and shepherded bills through to passage. His bent was conservative and Republican, but he would work with anyone.
“John could operate in a backroom or out in the rotunda,” said longtime lobbyist Walt Radcliffe. “He was always trying to bring parties together, to find common ground. He wanted to be a part of things.”
DeCamp delighted in the process. He got up to speak frequently. He darted in and out of the chamber to talk to staff, lobbyists and other senators. He’d pace up and down the aisle as the process droned on, and then gleefully rub his hands together when it came time for a big vote.
During what would turn out to be his last year in the Legislature, DeCamp in 1986 pushed a major phone deregulation bill on behalf of the industry — one his good friend and fellow senator Loran Schmit bitterly opposed.
Schmit recalled that when a legal opinion appeared to torpedo the bill, DeCamp maneuvered to get the Legislature to adjourn early for the week. That gave industry lobbyists time over the weekend to shore up support for the controversial measure. It passed.
“I used to chide him about that,” Schmit said. “But he did a lot of good stuff.”
DeCamp was instrumental in passing major bank deregulation bills (he chaired the banking committee for a decade), a 1977 rewrite of the state criminal code, creation of local lodging taxes, stronger drunken driving laws, restrictions on abortion, and a medical malpractice law that tilted strongly in the interest of doctors.
He also could be caustic and was prone to exaggerate if it advanced his cause, sometimes rubbing colleagues the wrong way. But session after session, he was a powerful force.
“If there’s anyone who knew the art of the deal, it’s John DeCamp,” said former senator Vard Johnson of Omaha.
DeCamp also proved a bit of a political survivor. He once came within a vote of being stripped by colleagues of his banking committee chairmanship. He barely won re-election in 1982 after it was disclosed he had spent nearly $19,000 in campaign contributions on mortgage payments, gold coins, medical expenses and office furnishings.
In 1986 his history of controversy — and the fact that he spent nearly all his time in Lincoln rather than his home district — finally caught up to him. He was defeated in a bid for a fifth term.
DeCamp moved to the rotunda as a lobbyist and was an overnight success. By 1990 he was collecting nearly $200,000 in annual fees. But over the next three years, that practice dwindled to almost nothing. While DeCamp liked to be involved in everything, successful lobbying requires focus on single issues and attention to detail.
“There just wasn’t enough action in the lobby for him,” Radcliffe said.
There also were other self-inflicted wounds that helped make him a pariah with the establishment.
In 1990 DeCamp injected himself into the legislative investigation that followed the failure of the Franklin Community Federal Credit Union. He wrote a widely circulated memo naming five men he said were suspected of child abuse and drug abuse. A grand jury in Omaha would later say the memo lacked any factual basis and was written for political gain.
DeCamp always defended the memo, saying it helped lead to the convening of the grand jury, and he later wrote a book about the case. Schmit, who was chairing the Legislature’s investigation, said the memo proved counterproductive.
“John could run amok,” Schmit said.
DeCamp numerous times tried to get back into public office — running for attorney general in 1990, governor in 1994, U.S. Senate in 1996 and 2000, and the Legislature in 2006 — but failed each time. As he faded from public life, he practiced law, becoming known for defending anti-government militia members, and owned a variety of businesses. He also was a member of several veterans organizations.
DeCamp is survived by his wife and their four children: daughters Jennifer Lecher of Clarinda, Iowa, Shanda Erb of Columbus and Tara DeCamp of Omaha, and son Johnny. DeCamp donated his body to science. His family is planning a memorial service at a later date.
“He wasn’t all good, but he sure as hell wasn’t all bad,” Schmit said. “He helped a lot of people, including 2,800 children. If there’s a heaven, John is going there.”