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Latinas Front-Runners in Assembly Race : Politics: Democrats have held the seat for at least two decades in a district that includes Pico Rivera and parts of Whittier.


The campaign to succeed Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier) is expected to turn into one of Los Angeles County's most spirited legislative contests, threatening to split loyalties among Latino elected officials.

Two Democrats--Diane Martinez, the daughter of Rep. Matthew Martinez (D-Montebello) and Marta Maestas, an aide to Calderon, are emerging as front-runners in the 59th Assembly District, according to political consultants and elected officials.

Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, a former Democratic assemblyman, said Maestas and Martinez "have the most support." Alatorre has not yet endorsed a candidate.

But, Alatorre said, he wants "to make sure a Hispanic wins in that seat. . . . It's important we maintain our presence at the Assembly level."

Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), who represents a neighboring Eastside district, said the high interest in the race "shows we're developing a pool of young qualified Latinos to run" for office. "That doesn't always happen," she added. According to legislative sources, Latinos make up slightly more than half the district's population.

The primary on June 5--triggered by Calderon's decision to run for the Senate--has attracted half a dozen Democratic hopefuls. Two Republicans and a Libertarian candidate have also expressed interest in the seat, which represents Alhambra, Monterey Park, Montebello, Pico Rivera, South El Monte, part of Whittier and small parts of City of Industry and Rosemead.

Attention is focused on Democrats, partly because they have held the seat for at least two decades. Rep. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente), said winning the Democratic primary traditionally has been tantamount to victory. He cited a 2-to-1 edge of registered Democrats over Republicans in the 59th Assembly District. In addition to Martinez and Maestas, four other Democrats--Xavier Beccera, Bill Hernandez, G. Monty Manibog and Larry Salazar--have expressed interest in the race. So far, only Martinez, Salazar and Libertarian Steven Pencall have returned their paper work to county election officials to qualify for a spot on the ballot. The deadline is March 9.

Despite the long odds, two GOP candidates--Steven Kipp and Leland Lee Lieberg--have indicated that they plan to run for the seat, one of 80 in the Assembly.

Assemblyman Paul Woodruff (R-Yucaipa), who is overseeing Republican Assembly campaigns, acknowledged that the GOP faces an uphill battle. He said it would be "very rare" for a Republican to win such a heavily Democratic seat.

In hopes of avoiding a bruising fight among Latinos, which has happened in the past, Calderon said he is attempting to persuade Democratic elected officials and community leaders to unify behind a single candidate. But he acknowledged "it may not be possible" to obtain a consensus.

Although praising Maestas' qualifications, Calderon stopped short of endorsing her. However, it is widely believed that Calderon, whose brother flirted with running for the seat, will support his longtime aide.

It is unclear whether Calderon will be successful, especially since other area Democratic politicians are pushing rival candidates. As a consequence, one legislative staffer noted, there is a potential for a blood bath among Latino politicians.

Rep. Martinez supports his daughter, a member of the Garvey school board.

"I don't see people voting against the congressman's kid," said one Democratic campaign consultant who asked not to be identified. "It's hers to blow."

Rep. Torres said he favors Hernandez, a Rio Hondo College trustee. Torres predicted that the campaign will be "a spirited contest." But, he added: "I don't think it's going to be a blood bath. We're not going to kill each other over this seat."

Calderon, first elected in 1982, is seeking the Senate seat vacated by Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), who stepped down after being convicted of seven counts in a political corruption case in federal court. Calderon is running in a special election set for April 10.

Democratic candidates estimate that the primary winner may need campaign contributions of between $100,000 and $200,000--less than similar contested primaries in recent years. They predict that campaign fund-raising limits approved by voters in 1988 will restrict the amount of money raised.

As the campaign begins, candidates are drumming up support, talking to lawmakers in Sacramento, lining up campaign consultants and beginning to walk precincts.

In listing the top issues, most of the candidates criticize the malathion spraying of neighborhoods, done to halt a Mediterranean fruit fly infestation. They also urge that more money be pumped into improving education, fighting crime and cracking down on illegal drug use.

The would-be Democratic nominees are:

* Martinez, 37, of Monterey Park, director of telecommunications for an alarm company, conceded that her name identification "doesn't hurt."

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