Memory of '94 Ad Follows Angelides

Former Senate leader David Roberti says, "I'm not sitting around with a 2-by-4 in hand waiting to hit Phil over the head."

But many pols wouldn't fault him if he did.

And, if anybody should ask, Roberti is supporting Controller Steve Westly over Treasurer Phil Angelides for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

"I've known Westly probably longer than most people have in politics," he says. "He was Northern California [party] chairman when I was [Senate] president pro tem. I think he's competent."

That's plenty enough to get Roberti's vote over Angelides.

These days, Roberti, 67, is an L.A. lawyer — practicing "whatever comes in the door" — and teaching a political science course at Loyola Marymount.

Twelve years ago, the Van Nuys senator was the victim of one of the sleaziest TV ads ever in California politics — certainly the sleaziest I've ever seen, sinking below negative into ugly. The perpetrator was an ambitious Sacramento land developer and former state Democratic Party chairman, Phil Angelides. Both men were seeking the party's nomination for treasurer.

Angelides, I'm certain, wouldn't run that ad today.

Five years ago, he told me: "As you get older, you mellow. You learn and you grow. I probably wouldn't do that ad again….

"Clearly, the ad offended a whole bunch of people I respected. In that sense, it was a mistake."

But Angelides did run the spot and it has haunted him ever since.

It wasn't just the ad's content — attempting to link Roberti in voters' minds with the murder of a Florida abortion doctor — but the timing.

Roberti, a respected legislator for 28 years and Senate leader for 13, had just survived a brutal recall attempt by gun nuts. They were angered by his sponsorship of California's first ban on assault weapons following a Stockton schoolyard massacre.

Roberti quickly became a Democratic hero, but Angelides didn't join in the adulation. He was running behind the senator in the treasurer race and lobbed a stink bomb.

Angelides' ad featured a smoking gun, Roberti's image, a funeral and violent scenes outside an abortion clinic while a woman narrated: "A doctor murdered. But L.A. Sen. David Roberti refuses to vote to protect clinics."

The flimsy link was that Roberti had abstained on a meaningless resolution asking Congress to pass a bill protecting abortion clinics. Roberti says the measure wasn't even available to read and he wanted to make sure parents were protected if they tried to dissuade a daughter from having an abortion.

Roberti, a Catholic, opposed abortion on religious grounds. But he never made it a cause and did little to roll back abortion rights. Nor would he have been in a position to do so as state treasurer.

"If you wanted to go after me on the 'choice' issue, there were a number of more civilized ways to do it," he notes. "To have to explain to people that I'm really not in league with a bunch of crazy assassins was disconcerting."

He characterizes the ad as "the three Ds: dishonest, divisive and defamatory."

But Roberti had used up all his ammunition fighting the gun lobby. He was broke and couldn't answer the rich developer on TV. Angelides won the primary by 11 points, then lost the general election to Republican Matt Fong.

Four years later, Angelides was elected treasurer. But the self-inflicted wounds from the Roberti ad have been slow to heal. It's common to hear longtime Capitol Democrats vowing never to help or vote for the guy.

The old, rotten ad has had an impact on the current gubernatorial race.

Westly promised, in writing, not to be the first candidate to run negative TV ads and challenged Angelides to also sign the pledge. This was the candidate's bright idea, rather than his strategists'. The purpose, apparently, was to intimidate Angelides, already stained by his "puke politics" past, into playing nice.

But Angelides wouldn't bite. And when he began closing ground on the front-runner with positive spots, Westly panicked and broke his pledge by running dishonest ads accusing Angelides of proposing "$10 billion per year in new taxes [on] working families." In truth, Angelides has proposed about $5 billion on corporations and couples making more than $500,000.

Now, a week before the election, both candidates are smearing each other with eye-rolling, mind-numbing accusations about the environment, oil money and political payoffs.

Candidates run negative ads because they work. At least, that's the rationale. But they seem to be working less and less.

"The harshest ones tend to get less effective each election cycle because people are suspicious about their credibility, having learned through the years that a lot of these negative ads are based on half-truths, fragments of truths, gross exaggerations and are taken out of context," says veteran Democratic ad-maker Bill Carrick.

"We're seeing a lot of ads now that look kind of chintzy — usually filled with newspaper clips."

I wouldn't be writing about this except for a quote that caught my eye in a San Francisco Chronicle story. An Angelides spokesman was defending the notorious Roberti spot, asserting: "Phil's ads are always factual and consistent with his promises and his beliefs…. Phil is strongly pro-choice. I don't think he has any regrets about standing up to protect a woman's right to choose."

I think he does.

I asked Angelides, and he answered, "You and I had this conversation in my office. I said then and I still say today: Clearly, this was an ad that a lot of people thought went over the line. And if you're smart you listen and you live and learn."

But you cannot rewrite history.

Roberti: "I don't spend my every moment being upset with Phil. However, the kind of campaign he waged [back] then is part of his resume."

That's the final word.


George Skelton writes Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at

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