California Elections : Robinson, Carter Vie for Right to Oppose Dornan in 38th : Longtime Legislator Has Clout, Powerful Backing for Candidacy

Times Staff Writer

He sounded like some alley tough boasting that he was going to beat the daylights out of the red-haired bully who had just moved down the block.

But the speaker, a short, round-faced man neatly dressed in a business suit, was Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove). And as he sat recently in his bleak Santa Ana storefront campaign headquarters, he wasn’t talking about a fight that would be waged with knives, brass knuckles and spit. For this brawl, the weapons would be political mailers, millions in campaign funds and intense debate. The turf would be the 38th Congressional District that runs from Cerritos to Santa Ana.

Most important, the opponent would be Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), a hawkish, outspoken conservative and one of five GOP congressmen around the nation whom Democrats have targeted for defeat in November.

Robinson, 43, a six-term legislator who is giving up his Assembly seat to run for Congress, is itching to take on Dornan. In a recent interview, he came alive as he talked about the upcoming battle with the redheaded Republican who moved into the district two years ago to beat Jerry M. Patterson, the incumbent congressman.


“Every campaign, he’s (Dornan’s) been able to control his agenda. He’s been able to talk about beating Castro. Well, I fought Castro,” the legislator and Marine Corps veteran said.

“The debate in this campaign is not going to revolve as much as Bob Dornan would like it to around foreign policy. It’s going to revolve around performance.”

Must Win Primary First

But for all of Robinson’s interest in Dornan, he faces a different battle right now. He would prefer not to discuss it, but before he can tackle Dornan, Robinson must first win Tuesday’s Democratic primary against Superior Court Judge David O. Carter.


Robinson has treated Carter’s campaign as not worth discussing. When he first announced his campaign in February, for example, he mentioned Carter briefly, but only because a reporter brought the name up.

“I like Dave Carter,” Robinson said at the time. “The opponent is Bob Dornan.”

Although Carter took a leave of absence from the bench to campaign, Robinson has remained at work in Sacramento during the primary. And vowing that “I’m not going to give Dave Carter more exposure,” he has refused to debate the judge.

Besides, after 12 years of representing the 72nd Assembly District, which makes up roughly a third of the 38th Congressional District, Robinson said the primary victory is already his.


“I am not going to be rejected by the Democrats of Orange County,” he said.

Eked Out Victory in 1984

In the 1984 election, however, Robinson came close to losing. Nearly swept out of office in the tidal wave that reelected President Reagan, Robinson kept his seat over Republican Richard E. Longshore by just 256 votes.

Carter and his backers contend that Robinson is still vulnerable, charging that he spends too much time in Sacramento, ignores community leaders and is more responsive to special interests than the public.


Indeed, nine of 12 Democratic city council members in the 38th Congressional District recently endorsed Carter, some saying they did so because Robinson would not listen to them.

Raised in Birmingham, Ala., Robinson grew up a Democrat, working in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. He joined the Marines, completing two tours of duty flying in Vietnam as a radar-intercept crewman. And when he left the service, he settled in Orange County, working for the Communications Workers of America as an accountant and secretary-treasurer.

First elected to the Assembly in 1974, Robinson is Orange County’s senior legislator and one of the most powerful politicians in Sacramento.

Robinson chairs the Assembly Committee on Public Investments, and he regularly carries some of the state’s most significant legislation. In 1983, for example, Robinson sponsored a compromise bill allowing Deukmejian to balance the budget without a tax increase. Last year, he carried a bill authorizing $450 million in bond measures for jails and prisons.


In January, 1985, an aide to convicted political fixer W. Patrick Moriarty said Robinson was one of many government officials who had accepted prostitutes paid for by the Anaheim fireworks manufacturer.

Charge Denied

Robinson denied the charge made by Richard Raymond Keith, who recently began serving a prison sentence for income tax evasion. Two weeks ago, Moriarty himself began serving a prison term for money laundering, fraud and bribery.

“I have absolutely no involvement with Moriarty,” Robinson said recently. “I’ve been told that by federal officials. I’m not worried about it.”


Last week, Carter sent out campaign mailers that said Robinson “was charged in a recent FBI investigation with accepting the services of prostitutes in exchange for his vote on issues favorable to . . . Moriarty.” Actually, no charges have ever been filed against Robinson. Carter said he did not mean charges in a legal sense, as in connection with a crime, and said he stood by the brochure.

Robinson called the brochure the “action of a pathetic, small, little man who evidently is in a panic because he’s going to lose an election.” Robinson said he might sue Carter after the election.

In running for Congress this year, Robinson has garnered a list of endorsements and contributions from political action committees that reads like a Who’s Who of Democratic politics.

Through May 15, Carter raised $131,244, mostly from individuals, but Robinson had raised $160,264, mostly from such groups as the American Federation of Teachers, the American Nurses Assn. Political Action Committee, Willie Brown Campaign Committee and Irvine Co. Employees Political Action Committee. Also appearing on his list of endorsements are: Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, state Controller Kenneth Cory, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Howard L. Berman (D-Studio City).


In the early stages of the primary campaign, Robinson’s headquarters on Broadway in Santa Ana was often empty. Carter aide George Urch said he came by one day, stuck a Carter-for-Congress sign on the front door and observed it hanging there for four days.

Robinson campaign manager Hope Warschaw conceded that the story might be true but only because “people don’t go out the front door. We go out the back.”

But as the primary nears, Robinson’s headquarters no longer has that vacant look. On recent weekends, for example, Warschaw organized work crews composed of high school students, 40 teachers and some of Robinson’s staff to stuff campaign mail--including Robinson-for-Congress potholders packaged with a letter by Robinson’s mother.

Robinson’s public appearances have been limited, with most of his meetings with public officials and community groups being private. Asked to discuss them, he declined.