SACRAMENTO — The Legislature's two top Democrats, seeming gleeful at times over what they perceive as a rare chink in Gov. George Deukmejian's political armor, both said Tuesday that they believe the Republican governor is being hurt badly by his handling of the toxic waste issue.
Deukmejian "has been hurt, maybe beyond repair," Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) asserted at a Capitol news conference.
Earlier, Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) contended that the toxics issue will be the governor's "most vulnerable area" in his reelection campaign against the Democrat who appears to be his likely challenger, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
Roberti, speaking at a breakfast session with The Times Sacramento bureau, also predicted that the toxics issue will be used to the Democrats' political advantage in their three toughest Senate races--in Kern, Santa Clara and Sacramento counties. He said toxic waste contamination happens to be particularly controversial in those counties.
Roberti, sketching what he hopes will be the election-year impact of the toxics issue, said it is "a close race" among the three counties over which area has the most serious toxic waste problems. He predicted that voters in all three counties will be especially receptive to criticism of the governor's program.
"Strangely enough," he said with a laugh, "that's where we have our major (battles over) seats, so toxics can really become a major issue."
Republicans, responding to Brown and Roberti, accused the Democrats not only of exaggerating the damage to Deukmejian, but also of endangering the possibility of reaching a compromise over major toxic waste legislation.
Steven A. Merksamer, Deukmejian's chief of staff, said Democrats had seized on toxics as a campaign issue because they could find no criticism of the governor on any other front.
"The reason they are talking about toxics is because they can't touch us on jobs, on education, on the budget, and they feel that toxics is one area they might be able to talk about," Merksamer said.
The governor's top aide, however, insisted that Deukmejian was solid on the issue, having dramatically increased toxics enforcement since he took over from former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in 1983. The Deukmejian Administration has overseen the cleanup of more than 100 hazardous waste sites and has assessed $3.8 million in fines and penalties against toxic polluters, Merksamer said.
Senate Republican Leader James W. Nielsen (R-Woodland) accused Democrats of politicizing the issue and said the rhetoric might make it more difficult to reach a compromise on toxics legislation.
"Injecting toxics into campaigns will get in the way of any plan we can come up with," Nielsen said. "They are trying to make political hay on the problem, rather than solve the problem."
But Roberti belittled the Deukmejian Administration's toxics cleanup program, describing it as little more than fencing dump sites and putting up warning signs. "There has been very little cleanup," he said.
Rival Plan Vetoed
Deukmejian's veto on Saturday of a Democrat-sponsored toxics reorganization bill--a rival version of a plan backed by the governor--was one of the issues the Democrats predicted will hurt Deukmejian.
They also said that Deukmejian appears to be politically vulnerable because of his managerial appointments to state toxics control agencies.
Another problem for the governor, they said, was the recent disclosure that his Administration was attempting to win an exemption from federal Environmental Protection Agency controls for a portion of a hazardous waste landfill in Monterey Park that is owned by the governor's political supporters, who contributed $19,250 to his first gubernatorial campaign.
The Speaker said the cumulative effect of these problems will hurt Deukmejian and help Bradley.
"It's hard not to . . . get a political advantage from what is clearly the major weakness, as currently exposed, in the Deukmejian Administration," the Speaker said.
On another political front, Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Tom Houston, Bradley's top aide, called on Deukmejian to return $17,000 in campaign contributions he said the governor had received from political corruption figure W. Patrick Moriarty. Moriarty, an Anaheim fireworks manufacturer, recently was sentenced to seven years in federal prison on charges of money-laundering, fraud and bribery of public officials.
Houston, in a letter to the governor released to the press, noted that Deukmejian indicated Monday that he would not accept contributions from anyone who had been convicted of a crime.
Merksamer, asked for Deukmejian's reaction, said, "I'm not going to respond to Tom Houston. If the mayor wants to quit hiding behind his staff's skirts, then the governor will respond to him. It appears Bradley now has a policy of letting someone on the city payroll make his charges for him."
Late Tuesday, on another environmental issue, Roberti formally called on Deukmejian to withdraw the nomination of Raymond V. Stone as chairman of the state Water Resources Control Board, the agency charged with protecting the state's water supplies.
Roberti accused Stone of exercising poor judgment in his private business dealings with two employees of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. And he criticized Stone for suggesting at a recent meeting of water quality executives that the state's growing problem of where to dispose of hazardous waste could be resolved if Indian reservations were to go into the toxic waste disposal and treatment business.
Named to the post almost a year ago, Stone is scheduled for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules Committee next week. Unless his appointment is approved by the full Senate by the end of the month, he will have to give up the job.