Many Legislators Relieved at Recall's Failure


Even before Election Day, Sen. David A. Roberti's chances of beating the recall started looking rosy to many of his Democratic colleagues in the state Capitol. Some, in fact, seemed to be sizing up the length of Roberti's coattails well before returns were tallied.

Others, however, were wary of a chill that might have beset the Legislature if gun owners had managed to oust a lawmaker in retaliation for firearms control legislation.

No doubt all were glad that it was Roberti--and not them--who blazed a trail through the expensive, draining and possibly politically damaging recall process set in motion by activists angered over his 1989 assault weapons ban.

Although few legislators will admit it publicly, seeing Roberti battle the first recall attempt against a state official in 80 years made them squeamish, Capitol observers say.

"Everyone was watching it, even if they were not talking about it," said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar).

If Roberti's struggle was viewed as a litmus test of how the public feels about gun control, then his victory was regarded in Sacramento as a sign that perhaps the time had come to stand up to the gun lobby. Few, however, could ignore that the election had cost Roberti more than $650,000, a fact that was expected to temper enthusiasm for new measures.

At least three other Sacramento lawmakers have been targeted for recall attempts or Election Day defeats by firearms rights advocates left energized by the San Fernando Valley campaign, even it if did fail.

One of those targeted is Katz, who is convinced that fallout from the 20th Senate District recall attempt led to the defeat in January of his bill to increase penalties for carrying a concealed gun. Both he and Roberti believe that skittish lawmakers voted down the bill because they fretted about becoming recall targets themselves.

That worry may have some merit, to hear gun rights activists tell it.

"We think the concealed-weapon bill is more wood for the fire," said Manny Fernandez, an original organizer of the Roberti recall attempt. "Richard knows that he's next. He knows that."

Conversely, it does not necessarily follow that Roberti's defeat of the recall will open the floodgates on gun control measures in the Legislature, observers say.

While Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) voiced concern that a successful ouster of Roberti would have added "a chill to the process of moving toward serious gun regulations in the state," he did not believe that a Roberti victory 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, noting Tuesday that he was so optimistic Roberti would win that he had placed a bet on the recall's outcome.

But Katz and state Sen. Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland) predicted Roberti's showing could prompt some legislators, particularly rural Democrats reluctant to support firearms restrictions, to clamber aboard the bandwagon.

"I think it'll nudge them over the line on gun control," said Petris. "Those wondering what to do, or on the fence, this will certainly encourage them over the side to come out swinging."

Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-San Jose), who is running for state controller, voted against Katz's concealed-weapon bill in January but said he has had a change of heart and now plans to vote for the new version Katz reintroduced two weeks ago. What made the difference for Areias, he said, is an amendment he expects will protect duck hunters from prosecution.

Areias said about 7,000 National Rifle Assn. members in his district circulated recall petitions against him after he voted for the assault weapon ban and a 15-day gun purchase waiting period that is now California law.

"Members watching the recall are concerned with the tactics these powerful special interests use," he said.

Petris has also been fingered as a recall subject by Gun Owners of California, one of the groups that backed the attempt to unseat Roberti. In a recent letter urging members to send cash to help defeat Roberti, former Sen. H. L. (Bill) Richardson called Petris a "nerd" and "the most vocal bleeding heart liberal in the Senate." Richardson is a founder of the gun owners group and formerly served on the Senate Judiciary committee with both Roberti and Petris.

The threat, Petris says, merely serves to "sends us a message to fight back." Voters watching the Roberti recall may be left with the overriding impression of the senator as a fighter, Petris said, and other lawmakers may see the benefit of building that same public image. "I don't think recalls are going to intimidate anybody anymore," he said.

The sense that Roberti would pull out of the recall a winner seemed to spread in the Capitol days before the election. "Several persons have made the observation in the past week that if anything, this was going to help him," Petris noted.

That perception may have signaled to lawmakers that there was little political risk in signing up for a last-minute blitz to aid their colleague.

Several Democratic lawmakers donated money to Roberti's effort. Last week, Sen. Milton Marks (D-San Francisco) got two bills passed by a Senate committee to make it more difficult for "gun fanatics" to schedule recall challenges in costly, low-turnout special elections.

Others, such as Petris and Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), flew to Los Angeles to walk precincts for their colleague on election eve.

Petris, for one, wore the hat of a precinct worker, knocking on the doors of targeted loyal Democrats who hadn't yet voted as of 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Fernandez said the outpouring of support from state legislators marked a turning point in the sensitive recall campaign, which Roberti's opponents had hoped would send a message to politicians that they are all vulnerable.

"In the three months of the election (campaign), I have seen not a single elected senator or assemblyman stand next to Roberti," Fernandez said. "If they decide to come in at the last minute, it's very courageous of them. Now, we will know exactly who they are."

One exception is Katz, who was a visible supporter at Roberti's $250-a-plate fund-raising dinner at the Biltmore Hotel in March and whom the senator praised that evening for his gun control legislation.

The way Fernandez sees it, Katz astutely smelled a winner early on and--sensing public support for gun control at a time of rising concern over street violence--tried on the martyr's cloak that Roberti had figuratively wrapped himself in.

"Richard knows there's very little he can do to get off our list, so he's basically radicalizing himself, trying to see if he can get some of the support that is going to Roberti."

Two weeks ago, just days after a Los Angeles Times poll showed Roberti soundly beating the recall, Katz held a news conference at Parker Center with Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams and other top law enforcement figures to announce the reintroduction of his concealed-weapon bill. If passed, the bill would enable prosecutors to charge people carrying guns without a permit with a misdemeanor or a felony.

But Katz insists his timing had more to do with showing his resolve than with opportunism. He considered waiting until after the recall to reintroduce the bill, he said. "But the reason I chose to do it earlier was I wanted to make it clear that regardless of what happened in the recall, we were going ahead with this bill."

One result of the Roberti battle, Katz believes, is that the curtain has been pulled back on the gun lobby, revealing its tactics and motives--and also the myth of its power in shaping public policy.

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