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No Regrets, but Respect, for One Man

Gino Martorana didn't expect to win; just qualifying for the ballot was a victory, he says.

October 08, 2003|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

KINGSBURG, Calif. — For the governor and the movie star, the porn actress and the fruit-smashing comedian, the California recall ended in hotel ballrooms and at big-city parties jammed full of supporters. Lights glared and television cameras blinked on through the night.

But the recall ended here too. In this town on California 99, in the vast reaches between Los Angeles and Sacramento. It ended for the dark-eyed, well-groomed man behind the grill at Gino's Italian Eatery, juggling boiling pots of pasta and splashing generous doses of marsala wine over skillets brimming with veal and mushrooms.

It ended the way Gino Martorana knew it would, with someone else governor of California. So if there was a little melancholy this night, and there was, it was not for losing. It was for the bittersweet end of a fascinating, frustrating, life-affirming, exhausting sojourn; a trip Martorana and a lot of other unknowns shared over the last two months.

"I'm not walking down the street ... strutting or nothin'," Martorana said as he handed a plate of eggplant parmigiana over the counter at the restaurant he has owned for 10 years. "But it gives you a pretty good feeling ... a little more like you mean something or you matter."

The media wore out the circus metaphor a couple of days into the recall campaign, and not without reason. But for every shameless media magnate and political parvenu among the 135 candidates for governor there might have been two or three like Martorana -- small-business owners, academics and community activists who wanted their say.

For Martorana, 56, it began inauspiciously enough. He reported to the county clerk's office in Fresno on Aug. 9, the last day to file 65 signatures and pay a fee of $3,500. But an hour and a half after he filed, Martorana learned that he was 13 signatures short.

He might have thrown in the towel right there but for the woman from the clerk's office who told him he had six hours to get more signatures.

Plus, Martorana had given up on dreams before. He'd been a pretty fair baseball player and might have made a go at the pros if he wasn't always toeing the line, working hard for a paycheck. He didn't want to look back on the recall election as another regret.

So he gathered up his paperwork as the temperature in Fresno climbed to 104 and tried to find other Republicans who would put their names on the line. He got kicked out of a shopping center and felt stupid and alone.

Then hope arrived from an unlikely source.

A newspaper reporter asked if he could follow Martorana on his hunt for the final signatures. Soon a TV news crew jumped on the story. Then another one. Suddenly, he was a guy with a media entourage, on a mission.

By the time he got back to the clerk's office, the desk workers and the media were clapping and hollering. "To me, just to get on the ballot," Martorana said, "it was like I already won."

But there was trouble back home. His wife of nearly 31 years, Caterina, thought this governor stuff was a too-late midlife crisis. Besides, on the day of filing, Gino was supposed to be helping his daughter, 30-year-old Agatha, plan a college graduation party.

There would be other lows too, like the day in late September (he came to call it Black Monday) when he had a final falling out with the people who created his Web site.

Suddenly without an Internet presence, Martorana canceled his only mass mailing.

That pretty much killed any hope the first-time candidate had of reaching many voters with his top priority: a universal health-care plan that Gov. Martorana would have paid for with a sales tax increase. "I was fed up," he said.

But the ordeal could pay off handsomely too. An Italian television station discovered that Martorana had lived his first five years in Sicily, and soon it sent a camera crew to Kingsburg (pop. 10,047). On Sunday, his brother, Mike, called from Bagheria, his hometown.

"We're not one of those touchy-feely families," Martorana said. "But I could tell there was a pride in my brother's voice. That was something. That was nice."

Every time Gino slipped out for another forum or a meeting with other candidates, Caterina had to take an extra shift or two in the kitchen. The family felt their rock-solid patriarch had turned selfish.

But one day last week, he knew his wife finally understood. Two days after Black Monday, he told Caterina he thought he would skip a debate with 11 other candidates that evening at a junior college in Pittsburg, an old steel town on the northeast end of San Francisco Bay.

"You've come this far. Why are you going to stop now?" she said. So he put on his black turtleneck -- the one he thought would show the young people he wasn't all that square -- and drove three hours to the forum. "It probably sounds silly," Martorana said Tuesday, "but that made me feel closer to her than I have in a while."

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