Roberti Recall Bid Backfires on Gun Lobby

To quote from a long strategy memo that the Roberti recall organizers sent the National Rifle Assn. 14 months ago:

"We have to engage the enemy, to work the enemy, to get in so close we can smell 'em. We need to break his will to fight us. . . . As an old infantry motto goes, 'God is our point man and Satan's bringing up the rear. If they don't see the light, they'll see hell. . . .'

"Producing political pain by bleeding our targets is what brings us great pleasure and satisfaction. . . . The beast is wounded. It's time to go for the kill before he can run (statewide)."

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On election night Tuesday, this is how the target, state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys), felt the pain and suffered hell:

There were seven TV mobile units outside his victory party in the San Fernando Valley--surely more than ever have recorded his utterances in a 28-year political career. Some units went live as the senator arrived under a flood of lights.

Referring to the 1989 Stockton schoolyard massacre that inspired his authorship of legislation banning semiautomatic assault weapons--the bill that prompted the irate gunners' recall attempt--Roberti told viewers: "They care more about their convenience than screams of little children. They have a screw loose.

"I'm still going to fight them every inch," he vowed. "They're going to have to know that you can't shoot at someone and not get some fire back. They picked the fight. . . . They've been as mean, as down and dirty, as anybody can get."

The small Italian restaurant was packed with perhaps 300 supporters, political leaders, reporters and TV crew members. The story was good for two separate Roberti victory appearances before a dozen cameras and several radio microphones.

"The NRA has pledged they're going to ruin my political career. Well . . . ," Roberti paused for the laughter, "enough said. I think they're going to ruin my political career like they recalled me. . . . Here I am all in one piece. And maybe their worst nightmare will come true and I'll win a statewide office and be your next treasurer."

Of course, every other sentence seemed to be about assault rifles and the courage he had shown in taking on the gun lobby in 1989. And all of it, in the parlance of political pros, was "free media"--in contrast to costly TV ads. It was in prime time in a media market that includes at least 40% of the state's voters. Further, it was the best kind of "free media," focused on a popular issue: gun control.

The free media was a gift of the gun lobby, whose fire had ricocheted on itself. In the end, it wasn't clear which was bigger: Roberti's landslide victory or the gun lobby's debilitating defeat.

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If the NRA and its allies couldn't win this recall, it's hard to imagine one that they might. As the inflammatory memo noted, Roberti was "wounded." The senator had no longtime ties to the district, which he moved into only in 1992 and won with just 43% of the vote. (On Tuesday he got 59%.)

Other than Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), nobody--at least nobody who hasn't served prison time--symbolizes the vilified Legislature more than Roberti, simply because he was the Senate leader for 13 years. And he is one of the most unphotogenic politicians of the modern era, with a shrill voice to boot.

But the gun lobby vastly underestimated Roberti. Despite the voice pitch, he is an articulate, effective orator. He is tenacious and a scrapper. He aggressively pushed a popular Valley issue last year: breakup of the Los Angeles school district. And regardless of what opponents implied--they tastelessly called this son of an Italian immigrant "the godfather of political corruption"--Roberti's personal record is spotless.

Beyond that, Roberti easily outwitted the gunners and aimed his campaign where they were most vulnerable: at themselves and their "extremist," uncompromising obsession with firearms. A Times poll of Roberti's district showed that every demographic group overwhelmingly favored stricter gun controls. Even a majority of conservatives and a plurality of gun owners favored it. A separate statewide poll echoed similar support.

But it's doubtful the gun lobby's defeat will have much immediate impact on the myriad of pending firearms legislation. "Voting patterns are fairly well-established," says new Senate Leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward).

Roberti's campaign for state treasurer, however, certainly has benefited. His statewide name identification has been enhanced. His posters and buttons have one message: Roberti's "the man who banned assault weapons."

Next time the bully gunners are tempted to recall somebody, they would be advised to unload--and shred their smoking-gun memos.

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