STATE SENATE : Roberti's Challenge : GOP's Carol Rowen Is Giving the Senator His Toughest Political Battle Since 1971


State Senate Leader David A. Roberti has been targeted by a triad of old political enemies--abortion rights advocates, gun owners and anti-tax activists--in his toughest election fight since he first went to the Senate in 1971.

One of California's most powerful liberal Democrats, Roberti is running hard in a June 2 special election against Republican Carol Rowen, a Tarzana pension consultant backed by a strange-bedfellows combination of abortion rights groups and the National Rifle Assn.

The two candidates are competing for the 20th Senate District seat vacated by Alan Robbins, who pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges and was sentenced to five years in prison. The district covers Van Nuys and other south-central parts of the San Fernando Valley.

Long one of the Legislature's most prodigious fund-raisers, Roberti has spent at least $924,000 and hired a battery of high-powered campaign consultants in his drive to beat Rowen, who has never previously run for office.

Roberti, who opposes legalized abortion, was forced into the June runoff with Rowen after failing to win a majority of votes in the April 7 primary election, in which he faced Rowen and nine other opponents.

Roberti is trying to transplant himself to the 20th District, where he is less well known among voters than in his current, Hollywood-based district, which was eliminated in a court-ordered reapportionment earlier this year.

The winner of the race will serve the remaining two years of Robbins' term. Rowen could then run for a full four-year term but Roberti must leave the upper house in 1994 under voter-approved limits on the number of terms state lawmakers can serve.

As Senate president pro tem, Roberti at this time of year normally would be bargaining over the state budget with Gov. Pete Wilson, supervising the Senate's day-to-day operations and raising campaign funds for Democratic Senate candidates.

But he acknowledges his bitter race with Rowen is consuming more time than he expected, leaving him with only a day and a half per week to spend in Sacramento. And so much of his campaign war chest is being eaten up that he cannot spare money for other Democrats, he said.

Spreading campaign funds around to colleagues is a time-honored technique for a Senate leader to defuse potential insurgencies, gain new loyalties and hold onto his powerful post. But so far, Senate sources say, no challenger has come forward, a situation that is likely to change dramatically if Roberti loses June 2.

As he campaigns in the 20th District, a Democratic stronghold generally considered less liberal than his Hollywood district, Roberti has edged toward the political center, promising to curb crime, cut government waste and avoid tax increases on the middle class.

Campaign aides, however, say he still has two political soft spots: his opposition to abortion and his 26 years in the Legislature. Both could be serious liabilities, they say, especially against an opponent like Rowen in a year when voters seem eager to embrace candidates with little or no previous connection to government.

"It's kind of an easy contrast for voters to understand," said one Roberti adviser. "She's an outsider. She's pro-choice. David's a pro-life insider."

But so far, Rowen has seemed more eager to emphasize her support for abortion rights than to posture as a political outsider.

She argues that abortion is the main issue in the campaign, saying that the U.S. Supreme Court could soon allow states to impose greater restrictions on abortions, throwing the issue into the Legislature. If that happens, Rowen says, Roberti will be on the wrong side.

A devout Roman Catholic, Roberti said that although he opposes abortion for personal reasons, he has not tried to torpedo abortion rights legislation in recent years and has given campaign funds to abortion rights lawmakers such as Sen. Lucy Killea (I-San Diego).

He said he also has a strong record in backing legislation favorable to women and children, citing in particular his efforts to secure state funding for after-school programs for "latchkey" children.

But abortion rights activists say Roberti must be removed because he is a "solid anti-choice vote" in the Senate. They fear that if three or four abortion rights senators are defeated this year, the upper house could emerge with an anti-abortion majority.

"That means restrictions on (Medi-Cal funding for abortions for poor women) could be put into place . . . and we could be like the other 38 states that deny funding," said Robin Schneider of the California Abortion Rights Action League, which is urging its 2,000 members in the 20th District to vote for Rowen.

Roberti in turn has tried to paint Rowen as a one-issue candidate, saying voters in the district are more concerned with jobs and the economy.

In sharp contrast to his low-key campaigning in the primary, Roberti has waged an aggressive runoff race, repeatedly attacking Rowen for her links to Democrats and questioning her personal finances.

Rowen raised eyebrows among Republicans and Democrats alike by bringing in Democratic political consultant Marlene Bane as her campaign manager.

Bane attracted controversy because she is married to Democratic Assemblyman Tom Bane of Van Nuys and is a top fund-raiser for Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco--the political equivalent of Darth Vader in GOP circles.

Roberti's camp spread word to the media that Marlene Bane had "recruited" Rowen to run against him after he rejected her offer to manage his campaign for up to $50,000.

Both Bane and Rowen repeatedly denied that charge. But earlier this month, Bane resigned, saying she wanted to stand aside to eliminate any obstacles to Rowen receiving money and other help from the Republican Party.

Roberti has outspent Rowen by nearly 7 to 1 in the runoff, but he has become the target of well-financed independent campaigns by groups representing gun owners and anti-tax advocates. The groups plan to send local voters up to 1 million campaign brochures attacking him.

Gun owners are seeking political revenge against Roberti for his sponsorship of a landmark 1989 ban on military-style assault weapons. The ban was passed after a drifter wielding an assault rifle killed five children on a Stockton playground.

The National Rifle Assn. and at least one other pro-gun group have endorsed Rowen, although she said she supports the assault gun ban and did not solicit backing from gun owners.

Roberti has tried to capitalize on the pro-gun endorsements, saying in campaign mailers that Rowen is a tool of the NRA in its drive to overturn the assault ban and "allow these dangerous guns back on the street."

In addition, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. is pouring at least $125,000 into anti-Roberti mailers in retaliation for his opposition to tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978 and support for a series of state tax increases.

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