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Two Incumbent Congressmen Facing Tough Challenges

31st District: For Martinez, the fight is in the primary--and in the family.

February 23, 2000|RICHARD SIMON and ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A tough renomination fight is rare enough for a veteran lawmaker. But as Rep. Matthew G. (Marty) Martinez (D-Monterey Park) struggles to stave off a strong challenge in California's March 7 primary, his worries include not only defections by longtime allies but within his own family.

State Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente) is running hard against Martinez, charging he has proved a "lackluster" legislator during his 18 years in the House.

The race in the 31st District has divided labor unions, which solidly supported Martinez in the past. It has split local Latino leaders, despite Martinez's status as Congress' most senior Latino member. And it has cost Martinez the backing of his sister.

"This is the first time I will not be supporting my brother," said Helen Lujan, a Valle Lindo School District board member from South El Monte. She said Martinez simply does not spend enough time anymore in his district, which includes East Los Angeles, Alhambra, Baldwin Park, El Monte, Monterey Park, Rosemead, San Gabriel, South El Monte, Irwindale and Azusa.

"We see Hilda, and we don't see Matthew," Lujan said.

The contest is being closely watched by other members of California's congressional delegation, who worry that because of term limits, they could be the next targets of ambitious state legislators. The limits, which apply to state offices but not to Congress, prevent Solis from seeking reelection in 2002.

"It's a Darwinian world out there," said Jack Pitney, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "When a politician shows signs of weakness, the other politicians start circling."

Added Martinez: "What term limits has created is cannibalism in both parties. Before it was the other party that was fair game. Now, it's 'take out your own.' "

In a sure sign of Solis' competitiveness, she swamped Martinez in campaign contributions, raising about $290,000 through the end of last year compared with the incumbent's $116,000.

Still, a Solis win would cut against the political grain. Throughout the 1990s, only two California House members were upended in primary races. In 1998, Rep. Jay Kim (R-Diamond Bar) lost after pleading guilty to accepting illegal campaign contributions and trying to campaign while sentenced to home detention. In 1992, Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), an 18-year incumbent, was defeated by multimillionaire Michael Huffington.

Martinez, 71, dismisses Solis, 42, as just another face in a crowd of challengers who have tried to oust him over the years. "It gets vague after a while," he said.

But Martinez has made it clear that he was steamed at Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) for what he considered a breach of protocol in endorsing his opponent. He recently called Sanchez a "freaking idiot."

Sanchez said she told Martinez that in 1996, Solis lent early support to her successful bid to upset conservative icon Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove).

Sanchez added that Martinez "didn't know why I would help somebody against an incumbent. I said, 'Marty, you might ask that question of yourself.' "

Martinez won a seat in the Assembly by upsetting a veteran Democratic incumbent in the party's 1980 primary. He then went on to win a special election to fill a vacant House seat in 1982.

Also backing Solis is former Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Pico Rivera). "I just happen to believe that Solis as a state senator is just a much more responsive and effective person," said Torres, who served with Martinez in the House for 16 years.

But several Democrats among California's House delegation are sticking with Martinez, including Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles, Grace Napolitano of Los Angeles and Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson. But Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), whose local political machine helped Martinez early in his career, are staying neutral, as is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

This is one contest in which the primary winner is virtually assured election. Democrats so outnumber Republicans in the district--57% to 23%--that no GOP candidate is running. The district also is among the state's most heavily ethnic; according to the 1990 Census, 58% of its residents were Latino, 23% Asian American.

One constant for Martinez over the years has been unstinting support from union leaders--the AFL-CIO gives him a career grade of 95% for his votes on key labor issues.

But that was not enough for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which backs Solis. Said county labor leader Miguel Contreras: "A lot of people thought that we needed not just . . . people who would vote the right way, but warriors in Washington."

Helping persuade Contreras and others that Solis was what they sought was her active work for the successful 1996 initiative that raised the state's minimum wage to $5.75 an hour.

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