The Final Assault

March 08, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- The most important political campaign in the United States is scheduled for April 12, a million-dollar effort to recall a California state senator who has to retire anyway this December because of the state's new term-limits law. His name is David Roberti, and right now his name is probably better known in Congress and dozens of state legislatures than it is in his own senatorial district.

What's the point? Dave Roberti was the author of the 1989 state law banning the sale of 67 kinds of automatic assault weapons. Gun enthusiasts from around the country have banded together in a crusade to try to destroy him as a warning to all politicians to bend on guns or be broken by gun owners.

''We have to engage the enemy, to work the enemy, to get in so close we can smell 'em,'' said a leader of the recall campaign, Richard Carone. ''We need to break his will to fight us, and fear is one of the most powerful motivators. . . . If they don't see the light, they'll see hell.''

That is from a letter from Californians Against Corruption, of which Mr. Carone is a board member, to the National Rifle Association last month. CAC is the name of the organization that collected the 21,000 signatures needed to call a special election to recall a senator.

A flier the CAC people distributed locally said:

''The final assault on California's leading anti-gun politician has begun! . . . You can prove that gun owners can have an impact. That we will fight! . . . If David Roberti is brought down by organized gun owners, his ignominious fall will be front-page news in California and the nation. The aftershocks will be felt all the way to Washington!''

Californians Against Corruption is a clever ''good government'' name in a state where ''good government'' laws mandate term limits and deliberately encourage ballot referenda, initiatives and recalls. When you call CAC, you get this recorded message:

''Californians Against Corruption, a member of the Coalition to Restore Government Integrity. . . . Recall David Roberti, the corrupt Senate president who for 27 years protected and released violent criminals like the ones who murdered Polly Klass and Kimba Reynolds, yet opposed your right to defend yourself against them.''

No California recall has been successful since 1914, but this one seems to have a better-than-even chance. Few people know there is a special election, and fewer will bother to vote in an election that will officially do nothing more than force a former Senate president -- the CAC tape is inaccurate -- to leave office eight months earlier than he would otherwise. And, ironically, parts of the 20th Senate District look like a war zone, because it happened to include the epicenter of the January 17 Northridge earthquake.

The situation is made to order for activists of any kind. The gun activists will be there April 12, even if no one else shows up. Mr. Roberti is a good target, an old pol by any definition. A 53-year-old Democrat, he ran for office two years out of law school and has been in Sacramento since 1966, first in the Assembly and then the Senate. The state's new term-limits law mandated the end of his legislative career, and he was planning to run for state treasurer as a way to stay in the game.

Mr. Roberti has guts and he can raise money. He wrote the assault-gun-control bill after a lunatic with an AK-47, the Russian military weapon, walked into a Stockton schoolyard and killed five children and wounded 30 more. Now he is pushing a bill limiting the number of bullets (to 15) in gun clips. He says he will spend $750,000 to keep his seat for those last eight months.

And the other side? On March 15, Californians Against Corruption are holding a fund-raising raffle. Posters call it ''The Ides of March,'' the day Julius Caesar was assassinated -- the idea is that Mr. Roberti is next. The tickets are only $1 and prizes include Calico M951 carbines, Davis D-25 derringers, Lorcin .380 automatic pistols, Firestar 9mm automatics, bullets, powder -- and a two-day pig hunt.

A couple of million dollars will be going down political drains -- most of it to direct-mail hustlers. The state itself will put up a million dollars to hold the election -- in the middle of a true disaster area of broken lives and houses and roads. Welcome to politics in golden California.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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