In the end, the most devastating defeat of state Sen. David A. Roberti’s long political career may be chalked up to a battle he won--surviving the tough recall organized by the gun lobby two months ago.
Roberti lost out Tuesday as the Democratic Party’s nominee for state treasurer at least in part because he spent himself dry defending his Van Nuys Senate seat in the April attempt to oust him.
So it wasn’t the gun lobby that--in its own parlance--came in for the kill after wounding Roberti. Instead, it was the well-funded Sacramento developer and fellow Democrat Phil Angelides.
In capturing 55% of the vote, Angelides became an unwitting beneficiary of the gun lobby’s attempted run at Roberti in retaliation for his assault weapon ban--a bout that left the senator victorious, but broke.
Unable to respond to Angelides’ attack ads, Roberti watched as his lead crumbled in the last week before the election, a period in which his opponent’s campaign crescendoed in a flurry of mailers that numbered nearly 12 million.
“When the gun lobby goes after you, it does have an adverse impact,” a pensive Roberti said Wednesday. “I would have been in a far better position had there not been a recall.”
But Roberti said he has no regrets for draining his treasury of $800,000 to beat back the recall, even though it meant he could scrape together only $1 million to Angelides’ $3 million for the treasurer’s race.
“It was too important to win, not just for myself but for the greater good of the public,” he said, noting he tried to send the gun lobby a message that it couldn’t bully politicians.
Russ Howard, who helped lead the recall, said: “It hurt him in the sense that it drained his money away. It killed his ability to raise money.” Still, Howard said of Roberti: “He lost on his own merits.”
On Wednesday, Roberti swore off any more runs for elected office. He said he is contemplating offers from law firms and likely will resume practicing as an attorney when term limits oust him from office in December.
“It’s tough to lose,” he said. “I’m not going to say I’m overjoyed but in everything I’ve done, I’ve been at peace with myself. I got stuck with the recall, and I’m unhappy about losing, but there is life after politics.”
As Roberti pondered his future, his supporters reported a bitter aftertaste from Angelides’ TV airwave assault that attacked the 28-year legislator for his antiabortion rights views andfor Senate corruption.
Their empathy for Roberti, who served a record 13 years as Senate President Pro Tem, was compounded by the fact that many had expected Angelides, a former state Democratic Party chairman, to set the standard for a more gentlemanly campaign.
“I thought the campaign run against David Roberti was disgusting,” said another onetime party leader, Peter Kelly, a Los Angeles lawyer. “I think that a former party chair doing that to someone who was such a great Democratic leader for all these years is just not right, and it isn’t fair.”
Senate Republican leader Ken Maddy of Fresno called Roberti’s defeat “perhaps the most tragic result” of Tuesday’s election. Noting that Angelides, 40, worked as a legislative aide before establishing himself as a developer, Maddy referred to him as “a former staff guy using a sleaze campaign.”
“I have some great sympathy for David,” Maddy said. “It’s a terrible way to go out.”
Two of Angelides’ four TV commercials aired in a $1.5-million buy statewide slammed Roberti hard, one ad painting a portrait of the Senate leader as corrupt. (Three senators whom Roberti appointed to leadership posts were convicted of federal corruption charges. But Roberti was never accused of wrongdoing.)
The other implied that Roberti--who as a devout Catholic opposes abortion rights--condoned the fatal shooting of a Florida doctor outside an abortion clinic. Roberti has denounced the killing as “horrific.”
“It was negative hyperbole at its worst. And he used it well,” said Roberti. “It’s going to say something about future campaigns where you don’t have any sifting for the truth.”
Roberti--who at 55 is a Sacramento legend after decades of representing Hollywood, East Los Angeles and, most recently, the San Fernando Valley--stands in sharp contrast to political newcomer Angelides.
Where Angelides urged voters to choose a fresh face with a strong business background, Roberti pointed to a long list of legislative accomplishments--the nation’s first statewide day-care program for latchkey children, the country’s first assault weapon ban, breaks for renters, animal rights legislation and more.
Since his first election on an anti-Vietnam War platform, he has been seen as an advocate for the underdog and responsive to community wishes.
Sitting among the political junkies gathered at Roberti’s subdued election gathering at the Biltmore Hotel on Tuesday night was Stephanie Carter, a parent activist from Tarzana who found the opposing ad campaign “very distorted, out of context and not true.”
Carter said she did not fault Roberti for his failure so far to advance legislation to break up the massive Los Angeles Unified School District, but attributed the Sacramento logjam to the normal “ebb and flow” of that particular cause.
“I found him to be a person who paid attention to what the people wanted and needed,” Carter said.
A shy man who thrived on politics as much as he valued his privacy, Roberti was a sentimental favorite of many Democrats even as they privately agreed Angelides would provide energetic new leadership for the party.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the two opponents had still not spoken to each other, neither to offer congratulations nor condolences.
“We haven’t talked,” Roberti said. Asked if he plans to actively support Angelides, Roberti said bluntly, “I haven’t thought about that.”
Angelides on Wednesday dismissed the notion that he profited from Roberti’s misfortune, noting he supports gun control and backed the senator in the recall.
“Conventional wisdom was that it was a huge boost (in publicity) for my opponent,” Angelides said. “But in the treasurer’s race, it was a non-issue.”
Whatever the road to the end, Roberti’s colleagues seemed saddened over the outcome of Tuesday’s primary.
“I went to his room when I heard, and it was very heart-wrenching,” said state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), a family friend who got his start in politics as a field representative for Roberti in 1971. “I just gave him a good old bear hug and tried to reassure him that everything will be all right.”
Times staff writers Carl Ingram and Dan Morain contributed to this report.
* CSUN SHAKEN: The defeat of 1A may hinder recovery of the earthquake devastated school. A34
* MORE VALLEY COVERAGE: B1
* VENTURA COUNTY ELECTION: Four finalists are set in battle for two supervisors’ seats. B1
* MORE COVERAGE: B1
* COMPLETE RESULTS: B8