THE first recall election of a California legislator in 80 years has elbowed its way into the national spotlight as a major test of voter resolve over gun control. The April 12 special election showdown over the fate of 27-year state Sen. David Roberti (D) is also being heralded countrywide as the closest thing yet to an American referendum on the availability of military-style assault weapons.
``The issue is whether or not someone can stand up for gun control and survive politically,'' says Sandy Cooney, director of Western regional operations for Handgun Control Inc., an anti-gun organization.
After a disgruntled worker killed five school children and injured 30 more with an AK-47 rifle in 1989, Senator Roberti shepherded the nation's first assault-weapon ban through the California legislature. The current recall is being seen by Roberti, several anti-gun groups, and several top newspapers as retribution for that action. Under the California state constitution, elected representatives may be voted out of office before their terms expire if proper cause can convince 50 percent of voters that he or she should be unseated.
Among Roberti's supporters is Handgun Control Inc., the group that helped push through a federal law requiring a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases.
Several of the state's top newspapers have campaigned strongly against the recall as well, among them the Los Angeles Times, which recently opined: ``From the start it has been painfully obvious that the goal of the effort ... was to punish [Roberti] for his longstanding and sensible support of tighter gun-control laws.''
But the coalition against him - which includes crime victim's rights groups, environmentalists, term-limit supporters, and educational reformers - garnered twice the number of necessary signatures necessary (46,358) for the recall. They say it is Roberti's poor record on tax and crime issues, corruption, and ties to big money that are fueling their drive.
``Roberti is trying to make this recall solely an issue of guns,'' counters Tanya Metaksa, executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action.
Miffed that Roberti has gone out of his way to attack ``law-abiding [National Rifle Association] members,'' Ms. Metaksa says the NRA joined Roberti's opponents last week to highlight the lawmaker's record on raising taxes and other fees and to point out his opposition to several victim's rights bills.
``There were 45,000 people in his district who think Roberti has a problem with taxes, government waste, and corruption,'' says Metaksa, noting that three former state senators were convicted on corruption charges during Roberti's 13-year tenure as Senate president pro tem.
After 27 years in the California legislature and 13 years as head of the Senate, Roberti is fighting to survive in the San Fernando Valley's 20th Senate district. The battle is tinged with irony because of California's term-limit laws, which will put Roberti out of a seat by November anyway. But opponents say they want to send a signal to other career politicians and undermine a possible Roberti run at state treasurer.
Roberti describes his ordeal as a ``terribly uncomfortable and mean experience to go through,'' with constant death threats and public name-calling. He says he is spending $500,000 to maintain his seat for the final eight months.
But Randy Linkmeyer, one of five candidates vying to take Roberti's place if the recall is successful, says Roberti's tactics are one more example of the senator's evasion of legitimate issues.
And John Stoos, executive director of Gun Owners of California says: ``Roberti's defense is a good example of why people are upset with him. He's ... throwing this gun issue up as a smokescreen.''
Either way, the recall effort will be costly, given its estimated $800,000 to $1 million price tag.