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MONTOYA : 26th District's Incumbent Is a Senator in Search of an Opponent

October 12, 1986|MARK GLADSTONE | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — As he seeks reelection on Nov. 4, the West San Gabriel Valley's pugnacious state Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier) is like a veteran prizefighter in search of a challenger.

Montoya is prepared for a fight. In the 18 months ending June 30, he received more than $417,000 in campaign contributions--the sixth-highest amount for any Senate candidate, according to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Yet Montoya has no opponent. In fact, the secretary of state's office reported that he is the only Democratic lawmaker on the Nov. 4 ballot without a challenger.

To show voters that he is not taking them for granted, Montoya is dotting his 26th District with billboards and scheduling to run newspaper ads. And he reported funneling more than $20,000 of his campaign bankroll to other Democratic Senate candidates this summer.

'Hard to Shadowbox'

Still, Montoya, 47, seems frustrated without a campaign adversary. It is, he said, "hard to shadowbox."

In contrast, Montoya captured the seat in 1978 after a free-swinging primary contest in which he unseated Sen. Alfred H. Song (D-Monterey Park) to represent the heavily Latino and overwhelmingly Democratic district.

In his two terms in the Senate, the Latino legislator has emerged as a sharp-tongued critic of other Democrats, a champion of conservative causes, a top Senate fund-raiser and chairman of the powerful Senate Business and Professions Committee--which controls legislation overseeing licensing of doctors, contractors and other

professionals.

During the last year, Montoya gained the spotlight when he tussled with powerful Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) over abortion legislation and battled the state's political watchdog agency.

Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) said he would rather have Montoya "on my side than against me because he's very tenacious."

Montoya's friends suggest he is a tough, principled lawmaker who would give them the shirt off his back. But his detractors complain that Montoya is stubborn and has turned his back on the underprivileged in favor of a conservative social agenda.

With Democratic registration hovering around 62%, Montoya's heavily blue-collar district is regarded as a safe Democratic seat. It includes Alhambra, Baldwin Park, El Monte, Industry, Irwindale, Montebello, Monterey Park, North Whittier, Pico Rivera, Rosemead, San Gabriel, South El Monte, Valinda and La Puente--where Montoya got his political start in 1968 as a city councilman.

Year-Round Office

To keep his name before voters, Montoya said he maintains a year-round campaign office in La Puente to perform such functions as sending out birthday greetings to the district's elderly residents.

State Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), chairman of the Republican Senate caucus, said that it would have been a waste of GOP campaign funds to field even a token candidate against Montoya. Seymour said Montoya is not easy for Republicans to attack because he "is hard on crime. He is on the conservative side of the abortion issue" and "fiscally he's fairly conservative."

Even though Republicans have declined to oppose him on Nov. 4, Montoya has no shortage of critics, some of them in his own party.

For example, some legislators say that Montoya's displays of Democratic loyalty are infrequent. "I think in his heart of hearts he wishes he was a Republican," said a Democratic colleague who asked not to be named.

Ties to Roberti

Montoya is close to state Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), partly because both are vocally opposed to abortion. Montoya recently sided with Roberti in the ongoing fight against building a state prison near East Los Angeles, where many of Montoya's Latino constituents have their roots.

Nonetheless, Montoya admits that he sometimes differs with party leadership. "David Roberti is a good friend," Montoya said, "and sometimes he has to beg and plead for a vote. I just don't go along because a party leader says so. I'm not in the Communist Party."

Montoya acknowledged that he feels close to Republicans on fiscal issues and some social causes, but says the GOP too often ignores the needs of the elderly and Latinos.

He vigorously defends his political record. "The bottom line is that with many of these liberals, if you do not sing their tune, you are not acceptable. I'm not a women's libber, I'm not an extreme environmentalist. Balance in my political being has worked well for me. They are out of tune."

Prediction of Vulnerability

One critic who thinks Montoya is vulnerable to a challenger is Catherine P. Hensel, who retired last year from the Montebello City Council. Hensel said she paid Facts Consolidated, a Los Angeles research firm, $10,000 to conduct a poll in February to help her decide whether to run against Montoya in the Democratic primary.

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