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Roberti Ready to Spotlight District Breakup in His Campaign Platform : Election: Supporters say senator will reap dividends despite lack of connection between issue and the state treasurer's post he seeks.


SACRAMENTO — Back in 1974, an obscure Oakland assemblywoman captured the office of secretary of state by capitalizing on a single issue to defeat better-financed and better-known rivals.

March Fong Eu drew attention to herself through a widely publicized campaign to rid the state of pay toilets and gained a firm grip on the secretary of state's office that she still maintains.

On Thursday, state Sen. David A. Roberti appeared ready to take a page from Eu's 20-year-old political playbook.

As he all but formally announced his candidacy for state treasurer, the Van Nuys Democrat made it clear that his high-profile bid to break up the massive Los Angeles Unified School District would become, if not the centerpiece, at least an important plank in his campaign platform.

"My fight to downsize the Los Angeles Unified School District, I think, is absolutely consistent with my battle for California state treasurer," the Senate president pro tem told reporters at a news conference a few blocks from the Capitol.

"If there is any one example of bloated government, it's this one," maintained Roberti, echoing a theme he has stressed since shortly after winning a 1992 special election for a San Fernando Valley Senate seat.

He said when the 640,000-student district needs to tap the state treasury, it affects taxpayers throughout the state--a point that Roberti's campaign consultants believe will hit home to voters in San Francisco as well as Encino.

Just as Eu's attack on coin-locked restroom doors paid off for her in a big way, breakup supporters say that Roberti's drive to split up the school district is likely to earn him political dividends--even though the treasurer's post has about as much connection to education as the secretary of state's job does to bathrooms.

While the Roberti campaign might become a lightning rod for discontent with Los Angeles schools, it is not expected to change the minds of many of his legislative colleagues.

Roberti's measure to set up a commission to develop a scheme to split the nation's second largest district into seven new districts was approved earlier this year by the Senate but rejected in the Assembly, where Speaker Willie Brown is a staunch opponent. Proponents contend the district is too unwieldy to manage while critics say it would increase segregation and not improve classroom education.

Even before Thursday's announcement, backers of the breakup suggested that a statewide campaign by their most visible champion probably would draw more attention to the issue throughout the state. That could be crucial as they weigh whether to mount a signature-gathering drive to put the issue on the statewide ballot next year.

"I would have to say Roberti running for statewide office will probably be a plus," said Robert Scott, a San Fernando Valley lawyer who heads up VALUE, a citizen coalition pushing the breakup. "He's going to be making a statewide issue out of it."

But Mark Slavkin, who represents the West Valley on the school board, questioned the tie Roberti is making between education issues and the treasurer job, which deals with mundane issues of bonds and interest rates. "I think its a fairly circuitous route to connect policy issues concerning the possible breakup to the office of state treasurer," Slavkin said. "He's grasping to tap into the notoriety of that issue."

Roberti scoffed at questions that his breakup push was prompted by his political ambition.

"Give me a break," Roberti said.

Traditionally seen as a liberal, aligned with teacher unions and others in the labor movement, Roberti portrayed himself at the news conference as a new kind of Democrat willing to butt heads with his longtime allies.

"I'm making some traditional Democratic constituencies unhappy with me. That is not the way to start off a campaign for treasurer," Roberti said.

"My willingness to downsize government against a tough lobby, especially for a Democrat, is going to be an issue whether I want it to be an issue or not" in the campaign, Roberti declared.

Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills) said Roberti had not turned the school fight into a partisan contest. "I've never seen David use this as a political issue," she said, complaining that the teacher unions and lawmakers opposed to the breakup have politicized the breakup proposal.

Boland, who has joined with Roberti in seeking to carve up the district, said she believes that Roberti will distance his campaign from his legislative duties, including the breakup legislation.

Others offered a contrasting view.

One education lobbyist, who asked not to be identified, said that after Roberti steps down sometime early next year as Senate leader he may attempt to pass the breakup torch to another Democratic lawmaker such as Assemblyman Richard Katz of Sylmar.

Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who represents the West Valley and favors the breakup, agreed. He said that once Roberti leaves the leadership post he won't have the additional institutional clout to make the school breakup a high priority for his colleagues.

And he said Roberti's time and attention to the breakup cause will diminish as he mounts a campaign up and down the state.

"His interest in the school breakup is definitely genuine, but he'll be swept up in the demands of a statewide campaign and that will be all devouring," predicted Hayden, who once lost a bid for U.S. Senate.

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