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Roberti Gets Warm, Bipartisan Farewell : Politics: The governor as well as leaders from both parties praise the outgoing senator and help pay his campaign debt.

August 13, 1994|CYNTHIA H. CRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The twilight of a man's career is not a time to hold grudges--not even in partisan politics.

So with state Sen. David A. Roberti only weeks from retirement after a quarter-century in the Legislature, his opponents laid down their rhetoric, dusted off their sentimentality and joined his supporters Thursday night at a dinner to honor the Van Nuys Democrat.

In a rare goodwill gathering over chilled cucumber dill soup and tournedos of beef, Gov. Pete Wilson and top legislative leaders put aside ideological bickering to share a microphone and a spotlight to praise the former Senate leader.

About 300 guests turned out at a Radisson hotel ballroom for a "This Is Your Life" fete that longtime Capitol observers declared historic for bridging the partisan gap.

People brought jokes, stories, memories, skits and gifts, as they would to any retirement party. But since this is an election year, the gifts took the form of legal tender. The 55-year-old Roberti got a hand, from Democrats and Republicans alike, in paying off nearly $200,000 in leftover campaign bills that had forced him to mortgage his Tudor-style Los Feliz home and borrow from his aging father.

"It's a touch of political history for the most ranking Republicans in California--and especially the governor--to lend their names to help retire a Democrat's campaign debt," said Robert Forsyth, a former Roberti spokesman who now works in public relations. "At one time or another, David has fought viciously against them."

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It was payback time for the private, portly politician who retained a record-breaking 13-year hold on the Senate leadership in part by raising and doling out contributions to loyal Democrats. The event raised $90,000 to help pay off the debt, incurred in Roberti's failed bid for state treasurer last June and an earlier recall attempt in the San Fernando Valley that was led by the gun lobby.

That Wilson would consent to headline Roberti's farewell fund-raiser came as little surprise to anyone who recalled that the two started their careers as elected officials together in 1966. That year, as the Vietnam War dominated the news and sideburns set the fashion standard, both became rookie assemblymen.

"When I met him, I thought this was a shy--almost painfully shy--young man," Wilson told the crowd. "Obviously he was intelligent. But I had no idea he would flower as he has. And I had no idea I would feel personal affection for him, which I do."

Speculation abounded over the future plans of Roberti, who in December will become the first career politician to be ejected from the Legislature by voter-approved term limits. Although he has kept mum about his range of options, Roberti says a judgeship might be too structured and he has been talking to law firms.

As Senate president pro tem until earlier this year, Roberti became known for his skill in stitching together a united front among Democrats and preventing it from unraveling in times of dissent.

The fact that he did so occasionally by exacting political revenge--stripping committee chairmanships and withholding endorsements--was recalled Thursday night, with humorous digs, as no more than business as usual in Sacramento.

If the evening's entertainment was worth the $500 price of admission, the credit must go to four women state senators who performed imitation rap songs as the Dames Under the Dome.

Sens. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), Lucy Killea (I-San Diego), Teresa Hughes (D-Inglewood) and Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) donned backwards baseball caps, sunglasses and street attire to sing: "David talked the right thing. David did the right thing. Whatta man, whatta man, whatta man. Oooooo, Ahaah."

Actress Gretchen Wyler, a 15-year supporter of Roberti's animal-rights efforts, belted out "Hello, David" to the tune of "Hello, Dolly" and "Dave" to the melody of "Mame." Senate staffers sang "Thanks for the Memories" and Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco) recited a poem he penned for the occasion.

Twenty-eight white doves said to represent freedom and transition into a new life were released from an outdoor gazebo, one for each year Roberti represented Los Angeles in the Legislature.

Mostly, Roberti was remembered fondly for his appeal to colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Among the 30 or so lawmakers praising him were Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga.

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Roberti was also toasted by a parade of lobbyists. One after another, they took turns at a microphone to herald the lawmaker for his "wise counsel" and his accessibility. They told stories about working closely with him on legislation over the years.

One cracked a joke about senators and felons that fell flat with an audience still stinging from the Senate's latest political-corruption conviction. Another paid tribute to Roberti for championing an assault-weapons ban, saying he was speaking "on behalf of the rights of many future victims."

And many used the occasion to work the room.

"Like every political event, there's a lot of schmoozing going on," observed Forsyth. "At every table, they are probably talking a little bit about David Roberti and a lot about their own political interests."

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