SACRAMENTO — The defection of Sen. Milton Marks to the Democratic Party and his immediate rise to a leadership post has sparked a battle among Senate Democrats that poses the most serious threat to President Pro Tem David A. Roberti in his five years of leadership.
Capping a series of rapid-fire developments, Roberti, who survived an attempt to oust him as Senate leader, retaliated Thursday by removing his leading critic, Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), from a key Senate budget-writing committee.
Both sides said their fight is not over, with Roberti hinting at further retaliation and Garamendi promising that he would continue his ouster campaign.
In a closed-door meeting of Democrats on Wednesday, Garamendi had attempted to replace Roberti and on Thursday, in a rare move, he criticized the Los Angeles Democrat in public. But Garamendi, who last year backed out of the race for governor, was unable to muster the votes he needed to topple the Senate leader.
Roberti chastised Garamendi for challenging his leadership during the hectic first week of the 1986 legislative session but dismissed the disgruntled senator's move as ineffective.
"Sen. Garamendi did make a run at my leadership yesterday," Roberti acknowledged to reporters Thursday. "He did not have anybody to nominate him, and I think that indicates the extent of the seriousness (of the challenge)."
The political in-fighting began when Marks, a lifelong Republican, switched parties Wednesday and Roberti named him to a leadership post, bypassing Democrats who wanted the job, including Garamendi.
Marks of San Francisco, one of the Senate's most liberal members, was picked to be chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the No. 3 leadership position. One of his primary assignments will be to raise money and plan strategy for this year's crucial Senate elections in which 16 of the 20 Senate seats on the ballot are held by Democrats.
Some Democrats said privately that they were stunned that Roberti picked Marks. They said the awarding of such a plum to Marks was a reflection of Roberti's penchant for making independent decisions without first consulting other Democrats.
Garamendi and some of his colleagues also challenged Marks' credentials to help run Democratic campaigns this fall. Concerned about the steady growth in the number of registered Republicans in California, they question whether their party can win in November without appealing to more conservative voters.
"This is a critical period for the Democrats in the Senate and the state," Garamendi said. "We're going to have to redefine our party's programs and agendas to meet the (Republican) challenges. I don't believe we do it by anointing Republicans as our party leaders."
In a rare public criticism of Roberti, Garamendi told reporters that Roberti's political program for 1986 is "a laundry list" of "yesterday's concerns," which Garamendi claimed were borrowed from recent public opinion polls.
Privately, some Senate Democrats said Roberti's proposed ouster has the support of half a dozen other senators and that he must work hard to to heal the wounds caused by the week's events. It would take the votes of 14 of the 26 Democratic senators to remove Roberti.
Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), who pledged his support to Roberti, said the Senate leader "ought to be nervous" about the move to oust him.
Opening of Door
Some senators suggested privately that Garamendi's move could open the door for another senator to step in and take over Roberti's post.
Garamendi is not popular with many of his colleagues, who worry that his personal ambition for higher office could influence his judgment as a leader. In 1984, Garamendi stepped down as Senate majority leader--the position second only to Roberti--because of dissatisfaction among his fellow senators.
Since Roberti was elected pro tem in December, 1980, he has been challenged only once--when Sen. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress) in 1983 mounted a short-lived effort to unseat him.
Garamendi was stripped of his seat on the Senate Budget and Fiscal and Review Committee, which means that he will be unable to serve this year, as he has in past years, on the powerful conference committee that ultimately puts the budget together.