SACRAMENTO — After 27 years in the Legislature, 13 years as head of the Senate and some 25 occasions as acting governor, state Sen. David A. Roberti--prodded by his wife, June--had finally decided to bow out of politics.
Hadn't the people cast their votes against career politicians anyway, with term limits? And hadn't running for office changed a great deal since 1966, when civic-minded volunteers and $3.50-a-plate spaghetti fund-raisers first vaulted Roberti into the Capitol?
And so, late last year, the Van Nuys Democrat had reached the decision to forgo running for higher office when his term expired in December. For the first time in practically three decades, Roberti was going to lead a normal life. Go home at night to his family, dabble in historical research and maybe get a job with a bigger paycheck.
Then something happened that made him so angry it changed his mind. A coalition including firearms rights advocates, upset over his assault weapon control legislation, got a recall election set against him for April 12.
"I think they were stupid because I actually had him convinced to look for something else . . . to go into private life, get out of public life," June Roberti, her husband's closest adviser, said in a recent interview. "But the recall changed everything. We're in it now to the end."
As his foes issued their "throw-the-bum-out" cry, Roberti upped the ante and tossed in a bid for the state treasurer's office, declaring that he will not be intimidated into retiring from politics.
Thus, the first recall election of a state official since 1914 may be remembered as something of an oddity, based on a series of paradoxes: a man fighting for his political life at a time when the exit light had beckoned; an election-turned-referendum on an assault weapon ban that falls short of perfection; a slick anti-recall campaign that skirts the issue of whether the senator has done a good job.
Friends in the Capitol say it is typical of Roberti, a naturally introverted man, to step out of his shell when challenged to protect his legacy. They say he desperately wants to avoid ending his long career as the victim of a recall effort.
"You can't turn your back on these people," Roberti said of the opponents he openly calls "cuckoos" or "nut cases" for the intensity of their Second Amendment rights views. "Otherwise, you turn your back on a career of 27 years, you turn your back on your life."
But recall proponents are quick to point out that 46,000 registered voters who signed their petitions apparently agree that Roberti has served too long in the Legislature.
"No one has questioned Mr. Roberti's intelligence," said Kevin Washburn, manager of the recall campaign. "What we are saying is he presided over the Senate at a time of the worst corruption of the democratic system in California history. And the people of this district are entitled to their democratic rights to recall him."
By now, the senator's strategy is apparent: deny that this is about Roberti the officeholder, and define the election as retaliation for his legislation to ban assault weapons.
While that tells part of the story, Roberti's own rhetoric shrinks away from his record or what he stands for ("You don't have to like Senator David Roberti . . . " says one campaign brochure urging a vote against the recall.)
"I really don't view it as an election about me," Roberti said in an interview. "If David Roberti were somebody else who had been able to do this (pass gun control laws), they'd be on their case."
Regardless of the underlying issues, a simple question will appear, in less than two weeks, on the ballot: "Should David Roberti be recalled (removed) from the office of State Senator?"
To answer that question, voters will have to determine just who is this man who burst onto the San Fernando Valley political scene in 1992, renting a Van Nuys duplex to set up residency after a quarter-century of representing Hollywood?
Capitol observers sum up Roberti, 54, as an adroit politician, one who shrewdly negotiates trade-offs--if need be--to further his agenda. And his sharp survival skills enable him to hone in on defining issues in the district, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District breakup movement in the Valley, which he championed.
He has a track record of successful fund raising, collecting hefty donations over the years from labor unions, law enforcement groups, the California Teachers Assn., applicant attorneys, trial lawyers and large corporations such as Arco and Chevron.
His ideology, he says, revolves around his belief that government has a responsibility to help people so they can eventually help themselves.
"I guess I gravitate toward the have-nots, the people who need somebody to fight for them," Roberti said, noting, however, that, "I think we make an error if we patronize anybody who thinks they are always right because of their condition, rather than the justice of their cause."