William Coblentz, California Power Broker, Dies at 88

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William Coblentz, California Power Broker, Dies at 88

Postby Adam Walker on Mon Sep 20, 2010 4:10 pm

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/20/us/po ... eo3WNkUlqw

William Coblentz, California Power Broker, Dies at 88
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: September 19, 2010

William Coblentz, who helped shape California’s postwar history — battling Gov. Ronald Reagan as a liberal university regent, representing Patricia Hearst and the Jefferson Airplane as a lawyer, shepherding major building projects as a power broker — died on Sept. 13 in San Francisco. He was 88.

William Coblentz was a lawyer and a university regent.

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His daughter, Wendy, confirmed the death.

Mr. Coblentz (pronounced KAHB-lenz) was a fixture of the California establishment, with political roots in the administration of Gov. Pat Brown and membership in San Francisco’s prestigious Bohemian Club. He was one of the bigwigs who met in the St. Francis Hotel in 1967 to choose a lawyer named Joseph Alioto to run for mayor. Mr. Alioto went on to serve two terms.

Not only did Mr. Coblentz pop up in the must-read newspaper columns of Herb Caen (once for being sprayed by a skunk), he also negotiated Mr. Caen’s contracts with The San Francisco Chronicle.

But it was after Reagan used attacks against the University of California to be elected governor in 1966 that Mr. Coblentz gained fame. He had been appointed a regent of the state’s university system by Governor Brown in 1964.

Reagan denounced the university’s “spirit of permissiveness” as he quelled student disturbances and imposed tuition. Mr. Coblentz defended professors and lecturers, including the African-American radicals Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver.

Mr. Coblentz himself was at home in a tie and was shocked when the Jefferson Airplane invited him to a dinner where each guest had two joints by his plate.

In an oral history interview in 2002, Mr. Coblentz, who oversaw the group’s bank account at the time, told of the Airplane’s Grace Slick wanting to buy a Mercedes. Ms. Slick refused a cashier’s check and asked for cash, which she stuffed in her bra. Two days later, she wrecked the car. She had no insurance.

Mr. Coblentz came to represent the Airplane and other groups, including the Grateful Dead, through his association with the rock impresario Bill Graham. They met when local complaints threatened to keep Mr. Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium from opening.


To show the Fillmore was not a blight on a fine neighborhood, Mr. Coblentz had a friend stake out a hotel across the street known to be a house of ill repute. The friend photographed policemen entering. After Mr. Coblentz shared the photos with the Board of Permit Appeals, the Fillmore was approved.

Mr. Coblentz knew Catherine Hearst as a fellow regent, and when her daughter Patricia was kidnapped by a group of radicals calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, she and her husband, Randolph, hired Mr. Coblentz. He spoke with the S.L.A. for the Hearsts.

One job was arranging the donation of $2 million in food to the poor demanded by the S.L.A. Another was representing two members of the group charged with murder. Mr. Hearst had reasoned that the kidnappers might appreciate free high-priced legal help for their comrades. The members nonetheless soon switched to public defenders.

“They didn’t like us, we didn’t like them, but they were entitled, as we say, to their day in court,” Mr. Coblentz said.

William Kraemer Coblentz was born in Santa Maria, Calif., on July 28, 1922. A doctor’s son, he worked at a drugstore as a teenager; graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with an economics degree; and served in the Army Corps of Engineers in the American South during World War II. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1947.

Mr. Coblentz practiced law in California and became involved with Democratic Party politics. That led to working as an assistant to Mr. Brown, when he was state attorney general and then when he was governor.

The governor offered Mr. Coblentz a judgeship, but he asked to be a university regent. Terms were 16 years, and for the last two years, from 1978 to 1980, Mr. Coblentz was chairman.

As a member and chairman, Mr. Coblentz was the force behind the regents’ decision to appeal the Bakke case to the United States Supreme Court.

The case involved Allan Bakke, a white applicant to the medical school of the University of California, Davis, who claimed he was the victim of reverse discrimination and had been passed over in favor of less-qualified blacks. Lower courts had ruled in his favor.

The high court, in a fractured ruling with six different opinions, outlawed racial quotas but left consideration of race as a possibility. It also ordered Mr. Bakke’s admission to the medical school.

Interpretations of the ruling have varied, but Mr. Coblentz contended that the case indisputably helped the California university system by showing that it cared for minorities and that it would defend itself vigorously.

Mr. Coblentz later developed a reputation as one of San Francisco’s most adroit land-use lawyers, helping steer major projects like AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium, through the regulatory labyrinth. As a member of the San Francisco Airport Commission for 16 years, he successfully pushed for free luggage carts like those in foreign airports. A boarding area is to be named for him.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Coblentz is survived by his wife of 57 years, the former Jean Berlin; his son, Andy; his sister, Lolita Erlanger; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Coblentz, who had a habit of taking the Christmas Day janitorial shift in his office, once called Mr. Reagan “a menopausal Cary Grant” and never apologized. When he retired as a regent in 1980, he was startled when Mr. Reagan appeared in a video tribute.

“Bill, you and I have had our differences,” the future president said. “But let bygones be bygones. If you support me, I may make you the next ambassador to Afghanistan.”
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