Costly Calif. recall vote targets anti-gun senator

ON POLITICS

April 01, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Using the ballot box rather than the arms that they insist the Constitution gives them the right to bear, Second Amendment stalwarts and their allies are out to shoot down one of their prime political targets in one of the most bizarre, and costly, elections California has seen in years.

The would-be victim is state Sen. David Roberti, until recently the Senate president pro tem. He is the subject of a special April 12 recall election that will cost the state more than $800,000 to conduct -- and up to $750,000 for Roberti to beat back. Roberti is the principal Senate author of the 1989 act outlawing assault weapons in the wake of the killing of four children and the wounding of 34 others in a Stockton schoolyard.

What makes the recall effort so bizarre is that Roberti is already on the way out of the state Senate. New term limits require him to quit about eight months from now after 28 years in office, the first "victim" of that legislation.

Kevin Washburn, manager of the recall, says the proponents can't wait to get rid of Roberti because he will be critical in passage of this year's state budget, which will cost taxpayers billions as a result of his free-spending ways. If recalled, he will have to resign at once.

Dolores White, one of the recall's founders and a candidate to replace Roberti, adds that "if we condone this kind of behavior" even for eight more months, the corruption will only continue.

Another immediate incentive is that Roberti already is a candidate for state treasurer in November and his foes want to undercut that campaign. That candidacy is a prime reason, as well as defending his name, that Roberti is throwing so much money into saving a job he will surrender anyway in December.

The proponents of the recall deny the gun lobby is the major motivator and element in their campaign, and indeed they throw a host of unrelated charges at him, from legislative corruption to causing California's economic decline. But their internal memos and leading figures active in the pro-gun camp leave little doubt of their role.

As far back as February 1993, when the Roberti foes were preparing for the petition drive that put the recall on the ballot, one of the foes, called Californians Against Corruption, wrote to the National Rifle Association asking for money. It said the recall would "exact excruciating cost on the anti-Second Amendment leadership . . . We need to take them out to set an example for others . . . We have to put the fear of God back into them." The NRA had already provided $5,000 seed money in 1992, according to federal filings.

An internal memo of the same group talked about "cutting the Gordian Knot of the Supreme Court" by moving to "put the fear of God into [elected] state-level judges, many of whom eventually become [appointed] federal judges. This won't be the last recall we will do," the memo said.

A Los Angeles Times poll last week had Roberti comfortably ahead, 40 percent to 22 percent, and 62 percent to 28 percent among likely voters, with 74 percent favoring stronger gun controls and 66 percent saying the recall is a waste of taxpayers' money.

Roberti, however, is not taking the challenge lightly. His heavy spending is required, he says, because the special election is on a day never used before for voting, and on short notice, and voters must be pulled to the polls one by one. As a result, turnout is likely to be very low, with the zealous opposition highly motivated.

Roberti is glad to make the issue gun control, which the opposition obviously soft-pedals in favor of charging corruption, considering prevalent public attitudes on guns. "They want to make an example of anyone at any level of government who is tough on the gun lobby," he says. "This goes way beyond me." But the fact he authored the assault weapon ban "is a bone in their throat they want to remove," he says.

The recallers acknowledge that they will be badly outspent by the powerful legislator now seeking statewide office. But the fervor of their troops will make up for it, they say. "We are not all gun nuts as Mr. Roberti would have you believe," says Washburn.

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