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CAMPAIGN 2000 | CONGRESS

Solis Trounces Martinez in Bitter Race

Challenger ousts 18-year veteran in a fight that split Latino leadership. Jane Harman wins chance to reclaim House seat after failed run for governor.

March 08, 2000|JEAN MERL and ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In a bitter intraparty fight that has split Southern California's Latino political leadership, state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente) on Tuesday trounced veteran Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park), ousting him from the San Gabriel Valley's 31st Congressional District seat.

And in a handful of other congressional races across California, election night returns were setting up fall contests that will help determine which party controls the House of Representatives.

In the South Bay's swing 36th District, former Rep. Jane Harman beat fellow Democrats James Cavuoto and Farshad Rastegar for the chance to take back the seat she gave up to run for governor in 1998. Her successor, Rep. Steve Kuykendall (R-Torrance) handily defeated his challenger for the Republican nomination, Robert T. Pegram.

While campaign volunteers munched on meatballs at Kuykendall's Torrance headquarters as election returns came in, the candidate predicted that he would best Harman in the fall.

"I've lived here for 25 years . . . and I'm still the incumbent," he said.

Joining other Democrats at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Harman said she was ready for a tough race.

"I think when the fall campaign begins, it will be very clear that only one candidate reflects the views and values of the district," she said.

In southeast Los Angeles County's 38th District, four Democrats were battling for the opportunity to take on Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach): teacher Erin Gruwell, attorney and health care activist Gerrie Schipske and college professors Peter Mathews and Ken Graham.

Neither Rep. James Rogan (R-Glendale) nor his Democratic opponent in the Burbank-to-South Pasadena 27th District, state Sen. Adam Schiff of Burbank, had any opposition in their respective primaries, and they sparred early and often.

Rogan angered Democrats with his lead role in the impeachment trial of President Clinton, and they see an opportunity for revenge because the district has been shifting away recently from its once rock-solid Republican roots. On election night, Rogan made no apologies for his role.

"I didn't ask for it, but I would do it again tomorrow. I would do it again in a thousand years. That's part of my record. Let them judge me on that," he said.

Schiff's campaign spokesman, Paul Hubler, however, downplayed the significance of Rogan's impeachment role, saying the fall election will be more "about who is more effective on local issues, more active and involved in local issues, and clearly that is where Jim fails."

In the safely Republican 48th District, which straddles Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties, winning the GOP primary is tantamount to election, and 10 Republicans were battling to succeed retiring Rep. Ron Packard.

And in the 31st Congressional District, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 57% to 23%, the victor in Tuesday's Democratic primary is all but assured of gaining the seat in the fall.

The bitterness of the Martinez-Solis match surfaced in comments made by the congressman hours before he conceded the race at his headquarters in Alhambra. He called Solis "obnoxious" and said she "put out a lot of things in her fliers that are absolute untruths."

At an El Monte dance club, Solis wept with joy as supporters cheered and chanted her name.

"What this means is that the community is ready for a change," she said. "We can move forward now."

Solis, armed with backing from organized labor, charged that Martinez, an 18-year House veteran, was out of touch. Martinez, who had survived previous tough election challenges, said he did not deserve to be retired just because Solis, who would have been forced out of her state Senate seat in two years because of term limits, wanted to further her political career.

The race split the region's Latino political leadership. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and former Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Pico Rivera) backed Solis. But Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard and Grace Napolitano, both Los Angeles Democrats, stuck by Martinez.

On election day, about 250 union members from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, continued to walk precincts for Solis. Miguel Contreras, federation leader, said his organization also raised about $100,000 for her.

In other hot California congressional races, the primary was merely the opening event for fall campaigns that could help tip the balance of power in the House. Democrats need to pick up six seats to regain control--and the upper hand in shaping laws, setting policy priorities and making federal budget decisions.

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