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Challengers Find the Road to Congress Is Uphill Struggle : Election: Despite efforts to tie 2 incumbents to S & L mess, challengers for 5 seats are decided underdogs.


Candidates trying to unseat two San Gabriel Valley congressmen are attempting to inject a whiff of the savings and loan scandal into the race, but the incumbents are nevertheless expected to win handily.

So it goes in the world of San Gabriel Valley congressional races, in which the five incumbents seeking reelection have held office at least eight years, and have proven invulnerable to challenge in the past. Two years ago, no incumbent received less than 60% of the vote.

Nevertheless, challengers are struggling mightily for an opening.

Republican John Eastman, running against Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), in the 34th Congressional District, is making extensive use of cable television ads attacking Torres for voting for a congressional pay raise and for taking campaign contributions from the scandal-ridden savings and loan industry.

Eastman, 30, director of land acquisition for a Newport Beach company, served for two years as a spokesman for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and managed the campaign of Republican Charles House against Torres two years ago.

Torres, 60, went from an auto assembly worker to a union official to U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He won election to Congress in 1982.

The candidates differ on many issues. Eastman is allied with anti-abortion forces; Torres supports abortion rights. Eastman favors a constitutional amendment against flag burning; Torres does not. Eastman opposes federal funding of arts projects that contain explicit sexual or anti-religion themes; Torres says he opposes political and artistic censorship.

Torres cites a number of accomplishments dealing with local concerns. He played a key role in closing the BKK landfill in West Covina to hazardous waste and has worked to control the spread of ground water contamination. He recently introduced legislation allowing federal agencies, including the FBI, to participate in the local investigation of gang-related crimes, such as drive-by shootings.

Eastman has leveled his strongest criticism at Torres for voting for a congressional pay raise and for supporting a budget compromise endorsed by President Bush that would have reduced Medicare benefits. In addition, he said, Torres bears some of the responsibility for the ills of the savings and loan industry as a member of the House Banking Committee and a recipient of industry campaign funds. According to a survey by the political watchdog group Common Cause, Torres has accepted $60,950 from savings and loan interests since 1982.

Torres denies any impropriety and said his opponent "cannot point to anything that shows I used my influence as a legislator to protect any nefarious dealings."

Savings and loan contributions also are an issue in the 33rd Congressional District, whose representative, David Dreier (R-La Verne), also sits on the banking committee. His Democratic opponent, Georgia Houston Webb, said Dreier, who has more than $1.5 million in his campaign treasury, received the second-highest amount of money in the House from the savings and loan industry.

Common Cause said Dreier accepted $75,150 from savings and loan interests. Dreier said the contributions came from reputable members of the industry "who have been working to get the crooks out."

Dreier, 38, was elected to Congress 10 years ago, not long after earning degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate School. He heads House Republican task forces on housing and foreign policy and has taken a strong interest in environmental issues.

Webb, 39, senior assistant director of admissions at Scripps College in Claremont, said Dreier has voted consistently against the interests of women, workers, families and the disadvantaged. She cites his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1990, the Family Leave Act, minimum wage increases, abortion funding and the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday.

"The more we expose Dreier's record, the better we'll do," she said.

But Dreier said most voters know his record and it corresponds to their views. "The complaint is that I'm not an extreme liberal Democrat," he said. "But the majority of voters in the district are registered Republicans."

Dreier said he voted against civil rights legislation this year because he believed it would require hiring quotas; he opposed the King holiday because of the cost to the government, and he believes private industry should regulate workers' benefits such as family leave.

Webb favors abortion rights; Dreier opposes government funding of abortions.

The candidates are competing squarely on the issues and have not resorted to personal attacks.

"She's a very nice woman," Dreier said. Webb said some voters seem hesitant to vote against Dreier because "he's a nice guy." Webb says she tells such voters: "Fine, keep him as a friend, but don't keep him in Congress."

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