Gun control advocates on Wednesday hailed state Sen. David A. Roberti's victory in a bitter recall election as a major setback for the National Rifle Assn., while Roberti quickly sought to use it to gain momentum in his campaign for state treasurer.
"It was a crushing defeat for the NRA," said Richard Aborn, president of Handgun Control Inc., of Tuesday's recall election results, which showed Roberti, author of a controversial 1989 ban on assault weapons, taking 59% of the vote.
Roberti, speaking at a news conference, said his victory should assure lawmakers nationwide that they can vote against the NRA on gun issues and survive. "It's important to get the message out to other legislators that they can vote their conscience, not their fears," said the Van Nuys Democrat, who spent more than $650,000 contesting the recall.
But the NRA and others supporting the recall said they were content to have damaged Roberti by costing him so much money to defend himself. "We bled him," said Russ Howard, a leader of the recall movement. "He'll never be able to get elected treasurer after this."
The Roberti camp was optimistic Wednesday that the high-profile recall election would prove a boon to Roberti in his bid for the Democratic Party nomination for state treasurer.
His ability to stand up to a powerful special interest, such as the NRA, "says something about my character," Roberti said. "I'm a fighter."
Clinton Reilly, Roberti's campaign consultant, predicted that the recall victory will give his cash-strapped client "enormous momentum" going into the treasurer's race.
But while Roberti basked in his victory Wednesday, Phil Angelides, Roberti's opponent in the Democratic primary race for treasurer, was already on the attack. Angelides refrained from attacking Roberti during the recall campaign because he said he agreed with the senator's gun control stand.
At a news conference, Angelides, a Sacramento developer and former chairman of the state party, assailed Roberti as a profligate who presided over a system of waste and perks in the state Senate. Roberti "created a system that wasted millions of dollars," Angelides charged in seeking to define the issue in the treasurer's race as cutting waste and creating jobs, not fighting the gun lobby.
During Roberti's 13-year reign as president pro tempore, the annual budget for the state Senate rose from $17.8 million to $61.9 million, Angelides said.
Angelides, whose candidacy is identity-poor but cash-rich, with $1.1 million in campaign contributions in the bank, also unveiled a TV ad that says Roberti was the architect of a perks system that provided chauffeured cars, tax-free income and free laundry pickup services for legislators.
"Now facing term limits, this career politician wants to be state treasurer, so he can keep his hands on your tax money," the ad concludes.
Roberti did not provide a detailed rebuttal Wednesday, but expressed confidence that the growth in the Senate budget "stayed within the parameters of the general state budget," he told reporters.
Cliff Berg, the top aide to the president pro tempore of the Senate, accused Angelides of misrepresentation. Drivers are available, largely to pick up members from the airport, but they also do other work, Berg said, and the laundry service does not cost the taxpayers money.
Recalling that Angelides himself was a member of the state Assembly staff, Berg said: "I don't recall him making an issue of these things then."
In Sacramento, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) doubted that the outcome of the Roberti recall would encourage an avalanche of new support for gun control.
"I think members of both houses are pretty much solidified on the issue," Brown said.
But Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) and state Sen. Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland) predicted that Roberti's showing could prompt some legislators to support firearms restrictions. Several Democratic lawmakers donated money to Roberti's effort. Petris and Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) flew to Los Angeles to walk precincts for their colleague on election eve.
Tanya Metaksa, the NRA's chief lobbyist in Washington, noted that Roberti spent $650,000 to get 30,000 votes and said, "I think Sen. Roberti paid a terrible price."
"It's really too bad that the senator is more concerned about bashing the NRA and depriving law-abiding citizens of their rights than he is of protecting his constituents from crime," she said.
In the final days of the campaign, the NRA spent $50,000 on the recall, mostly to contact voters through a phone bank.
Roberti acknowledged all along that the recall was a two-edged sword. The national and statewide attention he gained as the champion of gun control was to his benefit, while the depletion of his campaign war chest hurt him. "It's used up all my money," said Roberti, who is now embarking on a fund-raising frenzy that included a $1,000-a-plate dinner at Rex Ristorante in Downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday night.
Roberti quickly moved to capitalize on his celebrity as an NRA survivor. On Wednesday he flew to San Diego for a second news conference about his recall experiences and was joined there by a Handgun Control official and by leaders of the Mexican American Political Assn., which has endorsed his bid for treasurer.
Today, Roberti goes to San Francisco to hold another news conference on the same theme.
As the first recall election against a state lawmaker in 80 years, Tuesday's vote was a landmark event and closely watched nationally as a plebiscite on gun control. Before it was over, the race had been featured on network news shows and had been covered by the New York Times, the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour and National Public Radio.
Roberti cast himself as the target of "assault weapons extremists" who were seeking revenge because he had authored a 1989 ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons. His opponents disputed this characterization, saying they were also opposed to Roberti as a soft-on-crime liberal, a carpetbagger and a big spender.
Results from Tuesday's election showed that 30,743 votes were cast against the recall, representing 59.1% of the vote, while 21,276 votes, or 40.9%, were cast for the recall.
Bill Dominguez, a systems analyst who organized the recall drive, got the most votes of the five candidates seeking to unseat Roberti if the recall measure on the two-part ballot had succeeded. Dominguez received 12,010 votes; Dolores White, a real estate broker, 8,573; Al Dib, a retired grocer, 5,909; Randy Linkmeyer, a Canoga Park gun store owner, 5,297, and Larry Martz, a contractor, 1,289.
Times staff writer Cynthia H. Craft contributed to this report.