Backers Say Recall Was Triggered by Principle : Politics: Sen. Roberti says foes are firearms fanatics angry about his assault-weapons ban. But leaders emphasize a good-government agenda.


Depending on who’s talking, the leaders of a recently qualified effort to recall state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) are an eclectic coalition of madder-than-hell proponents of good government or a secretive bunch of vindictive gun nuts.

Recall advocates claim to be reformers who see Roberti, the powerful Senate president pro tempore for 13 years, as epitomizing a political system gone haywire with soft-on-crime liberalism, corruption, arrogance and deal-making.

But Roberti, who last week became the first state lawmaker in 80 years to be forced into a recall election, has denounced attempts to characterize his foes as anything other than vengeful--and potentially dangerous--firearms fanatics angry about a bill of his that led to a ban on assault weapons in 1989.


“That’s what this is all about,” Roberti said at a recent news conference, holding up an Uzi assault rifle--one of those banned from sale in California.

Not so, says Bill Dominguez, chairman and standard-bearer of the anti-Roberti forces, who describes the senator’s charges as a “smoke screen.”

But in an interview, Dominguez acknowledged that the recall leadership has entered into a marriage of convenience with gun groups.

“When we called (gun activists) for financial help, it was almost a situation of them being ready to mortgage their houses,” Dominguez said. “But call up someone and ask them to contribute to a movement to stop corruption in government, and they’d say, ‘That’s nice--we’ll get back to you.’ ”

The alliance was practical politics, said Dominguez, a Democrat. “To do something like this you need a tremendous amount of energy and money, and you can’t get that with three people operating out of a garage,” he said.

But while Dominguez, a systems analyst with the Trans-america Insurance Group and a candidate in the recall election, denies that firearms issues are the driving force behind his political activism, he nevertheless shares with enthusiasts of the 2nd Amendment the belief that gun control is liberalism’s failed substitute for getting tough on criminals.


“I guess I’ve been hanging around these 2nd Amendment people too long,” Dominguez said, joking about their influence. Dominguez also ran against Roberti in 1992.

The anti-Roberti movement has paid a stiff price for its alliance with the anti-gun control forces.

Such ties have handed Roberti valuable ammunition in his bid to virtually demonize his foes as single-issue gun “fanatics” or “extremists.” The evidence has been compelling enough to prompt Handgun Control Inc., the sponsor of the recently passed federal Brady bill, to jump to Roberti’s defense. The senator’s aides have said they hope to turn the recall, scheduled for April 12, into a national referendum on gun control.

“It’s a very intelligent ploy on his part,” said Russ Howard, one of the behind-the-scenes leaders of the anti-Roberti group.

Still, the recall movement cannot be dismissed as merely a puppet of the gun lobby.

For example, among the five official sponsors of the recall are Glenn Bailey, 38, an Encino educator and longtime environmental activist; Hans Rusche, 63, an engineering executive and local leader of Ross Perot’s United We Stand movement, and Dolores White, 59, a realtor and veteran activist in county and state Republican circles.

Both Bailey and White ran against Roberti in 1992.

White and seven others, including Dominguez and a Canoga Park gun dealer, this week filed as candidates to replace Roberti if the recall succeeds.


Although his participation is often cited to rebut charges that the recall is a product of gun-rights monomaniacs, Bailey is not insensitive to 2nd Amendment issues.

A San Fernando Valley leader of the Green Party, Bailey has said that while he believes there is “far too much firepower in the hands of the public,” he is “equally distrustful” of letting the government own all weaponry--thus sounding a favorite theme in the gun movement, that private gun ownership is a bulwark against government tyranny.

On the other hand, Rusche said recently: “This gun thing has been played up too much by Roberti and the media. There’s no question these people are involved. But the (National Rifle Assn.) hasn’t supported us with money.”

Besides, Rusche personally applauds Roberti’s assault-weapon ban. “Such high-tech weapons belong on the battlefield, not on our streets,” he said.

But the Roberti camp contends that such views are the exception rather than the rule in a movement spawned by the gun lobby.

The Roberti thesis got a major boost when the media obtained a lengthy, confidential memo laden with sinister, threatening rhetoric, written to the NRA by recall advocate Howard. In the memo, Roberti is graphically described as the target of the anti-gun control movement.


“The beast is wounded,” the memo says in one section, a reference to Roberti’s costly 1992 struggle to win election to the Valley-based seat of former state Sen. Alan Robbins. “It’s time to go in for the kill before he can run for something like attorney general.”

Howard has justified the memo’s strident anti-gun control language as a natural part of a sales pitch designed to get the NRA interested in supporting the Roberti recall.

Howard’s involvement with the recall also stems from his participation in a failed 1990 campaign to block the reelection of former state Assemblyman Mike Roos. Howard said he joined the anti-Roos campaign because of the 1989 assault-weapons ban, which Roos co-authored.

On the other hand, Dominguez and Howard say they have gotten no help from the NRA for their current recall drive. “I would have killed to have gotten their mailing list” of 350,000 California members, Dominguez has admitted.

And the recall leadership denies that they are out to punish Roberti for his assault-weapons law. “I’m not counting on the gun issue to make or break this recall,” Dominguez said.

Recall advocates also say the success of their petition drive proves that theirs is not a single-issue campaign. More than 20,000 registered voters signed the petitions that outlined--as required by law--proponents’ arguments for recalling Roberti, as well as the senator’s rebuttal.


But the pro-recall arguments mention as the last of five points that Roberti “advocates gun control but opposes capital punishment even for murderers of children.”

Howard, 37, a stockbroker and South Bay resident, also resents being portrayed as a gun fanatic. He points to the fact--confirmed by other sources--that he was the first research director for the Proposition 174 school-voucher campaign. He also claims to have been an avid precinct worker for the campaign to oust former California Supreme Court Justice Rose Bird.

A lifetime NRA member, Howard insists that it is Roberti’s political abuses that have motivated his drive to oust the senator. It was in 1990 that Howard met Dominguez and joined Californians Against Corruption (CAC), a group organized around the effort to defeat Roos.

CAC was founded by Dominguez and Richard L. Carone, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident and president of Finley Oil Well Services, an oil-drilling maintenance firm that has reported revenues of $5 million to $10 million.

At its headquarters in Signal Hill, the CAC’s taped answering machine message hotly denounces Roberti as one whose soft-on-crime record “has protected and released violent criminals like the ones who murdered Polly Klass and Kimba Reynolds and yet opposed your right to defend yourself against them.”

CAC activities also have been praised by Neal Knox, a national gun-rights leader who has complained that the NRA has not been vigilant enough in stopping gun-control legislation, including California’s assault-weapons ban.


Perhaps the most controversial member of CAC has been Cuban emigre Manuel Fernandez, who once told The Times that the “whole purpose of the recall of Roberti is retribution” for his weapons ban.

In 1983, Fernandez was convicted of illegally owning a machine gun.

Despite a recent effort by the recall movement to distance themselves from him, Fernandez attended a news conference of the recall leadership Jan. 6.

Referring to the Fernandez conviction, Roberti campaign press secretary Staci Walters said: “This is just another example of the fact that the recall proponents have clear motives to wreak revenge on Sen. Roberti because of his leadership on banning assault weapons, that outgun cops and cut down kids.”

With or without Fernandez, CAC is little more than a front for the NRA, according to Roberti. His backers have filed complaints with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging that CAC violated state law by failing to disclose a $5,000 contribution received in 1990 from the NRA Political Victory Fund.

These complaints stemmed from CAC’s 1990 campaign to block Roberti’s difficult bid to win election to a Valley-based Senate seat.

Howard, now a leader of the CAC, said the failure to disclose the NRA gift was a technical mistake.


Dominguez’s political views have been shaped by his own brush with authoritarian rule as the son of a Cuban businessman who fled his homeland in 1961 because of his political opposition to Fidel Castro. “Let’s put it this way,” Dominguez, 43, said. “I don’t feel as complacent as many people do about the situation we’re in.”

For Dominguez, it is galling that Roberti, the leader of a legislative body that has seen several of its members convicted and charged with political corruption in recent years, can spend more than $2 million to win election to a seat in the Valley even though his residence is in Hollywood.

Bailey, the environmental activist, shares a similar sense of outrage about Roberti. “It’s despicable that he was able to bring his laundered political money and buy a seat in the Valley,” Bailey said in an interview.

After attending meetings where Roberti was present, Bailey said he was shocked to learn that the senator did not know about prostitution problems on Sepulveda Boulevard and was indifferent about protecting the Sepulveda Basin from development.

“This coalition to oust Roberti includes people from the right, the left and the middle,” Bailey said. “We don’t agree on all the issues, but we are united in our belief that Roberti is unfit for office.”

Also active in the coalition is Ralph Morrell, a legislative gadfly in Sacramento. Morrell gained considerable recognition for his efforts to force disclosure of how legislators spend their office budget funds.


Morrell and Ted Costa, who is the executive director of the People’s Advocate, the group founded by tax fighter Paul Gann, recently flew to Los Angeles to join the recall leadership at a news conference. “I’ve been reassured that this is not a gun issue thing only,” the retired Navy man said.

John Stites, a candidate for Los Angeles County sheriff, is another recent recruit to the coalition as it seeks to broaden its base. Stites, a sergeant in the Sheriff’s Department, sensed during meetings with leaders of the recall campaign that the group is not dominated by anti-gun control fanatics.

“Certainly, that’s not my gig,” Stites said.