CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / TREASURER : Roberti and Angelides Slug It Out : Contest turns ugly as developer, a former state Democratic party chairman, attacks longtime Senate leader's record. A counteroffensive targets the businessman's dealings.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those seeking the office of state treasurer might be expected to engage in lofty discussions of bond sales, pension investments and credit ratings.

But the below-the-belt Democratic party contest over who gets to follow in Kathleen Brown's footsteps has turned this statewide campaign into the most spirited, perhaps nastiest such matchup so far this primary season.

In a headline-grabbing race, a well-financed but little-known underdog is aggressively taking on a nearly three-decade politician who is as much a part of the Sacramento scene as the domed Capitol itself.

And that's the point, says Phil Angelides, a Sacramento developer and former state Democratic Party chairman who, in his first run for statewide office, has amassed a larger war chest than anyone else seeking state office outside of the governor's race.

With nearly $3 million set aside to make his a household name before Election Day, June 7, Angelides is attacking state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) for his longtime role as a Senate leader during California's period of economic decline and the FBI's lengthy political corruption investigation of the Legislature.

On Friday, Angelides unveiled a 30-second TV ad skewering Roberti for placing into positions of power three corrupt state senators "even though . . . he knew of their sleazy reputations." The three, state Sens. Joseph Montoya (D-Whittier), Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) and Paul B. Carpenter (D-Downey), were convicted on federal corruption charges after an FBI investigation.

This follows quickly on the heels of a commercial that attacks Roberti for his anti-abortion rights stance by implying he condoned the fatal shooting of abortion doctor David Gunn outside a Pensacola, Fla., clinic.

Roberti accuses Angelides of conducting "a smear job." His campaign focuses on exposing Angelides as a "cut and run" developer who removed his name from properties on the verge of being repossessed.

"If there's anything the public wants less than a longtime politician," the veteran senator says, "it's a real estate speculator in charge of the state's money."

Both candidates say they seek the job for all the traditional reasons and then some. They want to help California regain top-tier credit ratings, invest state pension money wisely, sell bonds prudently, help rebuild the economy and create jobs.

Roberti, 55, who has represented portions of Los Angeles in the Legislature for 27 years, 13 of them as Senate leader, likes to remind voters he stood up to the gun lobby in his defeat of a spring recall campaign that targeted him because of his assault weapon control legislation. Angelides, 40, points to his successes in business and in leading the 1992 ballot-box charge for the Democratic Party after 12 years of Reagan-Bush. Whoever emerges victorious will run in November against Republican Matthew Fong, 40, a State Board of Equalization member who is unopposed in the GOP primary.

Between the Democrats, the contest started with a gentlemen's agreement to refrain from competing for the party's endorsement, but it has quickly degenerated to the point where each tries to discredit and undercut the other.

Angelides touts a long list of endorsements that include some environmental groups, a handful of Hollywood's elite and California's two U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Roberti supporters charge that the list merely reflects pay-back time and that Angelides is simply collecting debts from backers whom he aided as party chair.

For his part, Roberti says his lengthy legislative experience would serve him well as state treasurer if he has to forge consensus among lawmakers on state bond proposals. Angelides, however, speaks of "the three crooks" Roberti put in Senate leadership positions. Roberti points out he has never been charged with a crime and says, "People are innocent until proven guilty."

As barbed as the corruption ad may be, it was Angelides' abortion-rights spot that drove the biggest wedge between two men who, just a short while ago, were on the same side of the table.

The fast-paced commercial opens with a shot of raucous anti-abortion protesters blocking a clinic, moves quickly to scenes of Dr. Gunn's 1993 funeral and then flashes an image of Roberti on the screen.

"Violent anti-choice extremists attack clinics," an announcer says. "A doctor murdered. But L.A. Sen. David Roberti refuses to vote to protect clinics, attempts to cut off funding, and writes a constitutional ban on abortion. . . ."

Angelides defends the ad as relevant because the state treasurer sits on the California Health Facilities Financing Authority, which provides tax-exempt funding for construction of hospitals and clinics. Roberti, he claims, is a "zealot" who might refuse to fund facilities that provide abortions.

Angelides, on the other hand, calls himself "the candidate of choice," a reference to his pro-abortion rights position. His strategy is not lost on political observers who note that, in the 1992 California Democratic primary, 57% of the voters who turned out were women.

Roberti, a staunch Catholic, insists he has a strong record on women's issues and maintains he is far from fanatical on the question of abortion.

Apparently with little money to launch a TV blitz of his own, an irate Roberti calls the ad "shocking, mean and beneath contempt" and denounces the killing of Gunn as "horrific."

Noting his coffers were depleted by spending $800,000 to defeat the recall led by the gun lobby, Roberti charges: "The NRA could take some lessons from Phil Angelides as to delivering low blows. Phil Angelides is doing the NRA's dirty work for them. Their intent is to try to ruin my career and he's a willing accomplice."

But Roberti is launching a counteroffensive to get the word out about Angelides' record during a 10-year boom period in which he amassed wealth through some 35 business partnerships.

During the decade, Roberti alleges, "failed developer" Angelides paved over wetlands, ducked out of tax payments and bailed out of his biggest development--a Sacramento suburban community called Laguna West--just before financial turbulence hit and the bank repossessed it.

Angelides admits to selling off his portion of Laguna West but says he did so to focus on his treasurer's bid and, at any rate, he still manages the project.

It is a development that he is unfailingly proud of, he says, noting that its neo-traditionalist "pedestrian pocket" design has been heralded by urban affairs writers nationwide.

Rave reviews of the development's design didn't stop Roberti from leading reporters on a bus tour of Laguna West last week in a press event advertised as the "Phil Angelides Take the Money and Run Tour '94." Staci Walters, the senator's campaign manager, passed out T-shirts, explaining dryly: "They drew first blood."

Passing by rows of stucco houses and many vacant lots, Roberti remarked that the development looked "straight out of East Berlin" and said, "It's nice because you can have the appearance of neighbors and not have any."

"David Roberti can make up whatever he wants," says Angelides, "but Laguna West is a good project that's created jobs and that's a model. For him to try to twist that shows how desperate he is to stay in office."

While he paints Roberti as a job-shopping careerist in an era when California cries out for fresh leadership, Angelides holds himself up as the outsider with energy and business savvy.

He points to his bulging campaign bank account as evidence that people are receptive to his message. During this election cycle, Angelides has raised $2.3 million from about 4,000 contributors, most of whom he says gave checks of $250 or smaller. On top of that is the $500,000 personal check he recently pumped into his campaign.

All of which has Roberti seeing an opportunity to lob another shot his opponent's way. "I don't see why he's so proud of the fact that he's a rich man. To me it's astounding he's so happy he's rich."

Grouses Walters, "Angelides is stretching the facts as far as he can because he knows we don't have the money to go after him. He's just slinging mud because he knows he can."

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