Martinez: Insecurities Clash With the Drive to Succeed

Times Staff Writer

The teasing started almost immediately after Uvaldo Martinez, the newly elected San Diego city councilman, emerged from the tour bus more than a year ago to join the other public officials and their spouses standing in the flourishing citrus orchards in Central California.

The group had been bused by Los Angeles water officials to irrigated fields on a junket to pick free fruit, but some couldn’t resist needling Martinez about the harvesting techniques used by Latino migrant farm workers. “Hey, Uvaldo,” piped up one jokester, “Do you have your green card?”

The councilman reached into his wallet and flashed the only green card that mattered--his American Express charge card.

Even in jest, Uvaldo Anthony Martinez Jr. feels compelled to show off the power and prestige he has worked so hard to attain, his friends and associates say.

A former prep football star, the 6-foot-3 Martinez plays the part of the politician to the hilt, cutting an imposing figure marching through the drab corridors of City Hall and sitting at his desk with a cigar wedged between his fingers.


Now the man who friends say labors to mask his insecurities is at the center of the biggest scandal to rock San Diego City Hall since Mayor Roger Hedgecock was indicted last year on felony conspiracy and perjury charges.

Unlike the charges against Hedgecock, which are so complicated they sometimes strain the intellect, the allegations against Martinez strike the gut: He and his aide, Rudy Murillo, spent $9,502 of the taxpayers’ money between July 1, 1984, and June 20 of this year by charging, among other things, $200 and $300 meals at some of the area’s finest restaurants on their city-issued credit cards. What’s more, more than 20 people listed on city forms as their guests now say they were never present, while others who admit they supped with Martinez say no city business was discussed.

The district attorney’s office is reviewing the matter, and it will determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted. If Martinez is found to have intentionally falsified city records, he could face felony charges that carry a prison term of up to four years. If convicted of a felony, he would be banned from holding public office ever again.

Although Martinez now refuses to answer questions about the controversy, the scandal has lifted the curtain on the kind of behavior that friends and foes say was indicative of a man who sought approval and got carried away.

Martinez was such a regular at Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant, a favorite hangout for lawyers and politicians a block from City Hall, that the management put Martinez’s name on a bronze wall plaque. Others who talked to The Times on the condition they not be identified said that Martinez would spend hours at the bar with friends and associates.

There, and at other posh restaurants like Mr. A’s and DiCanti, Martinez became quick to use his city credit card--in part, said friends and foes, to prove that the councilman who lives in a house on Laurel Street, where he has put cardboard over the broken windows, could be just as impressive as the Establishment developers and businessmen who courted his vote.

“He’s worried about being (perceived as) the token Hispanic,” said Mike Madigan, senior vice president of Pardee Construction Co. and one of Martinez’s close friends for 15 years. He said it is as if the 8th District councilman was asking himself, “ ‘If I deal with the power structure, what do they really think about me? . . . Do they respect me because I can get things done?’

“Then there’s the idea, ‘Gee, am I really good enough?’ ”

Dan L. Munoz, publisher of La Prensa San Diego and one of Martinez’s most strident political critics, said: “He’s nothing but a poor Mexican. He’s trying to live up to a standard set by the rich power structure of society. It’s understandable he’s caught.”

Martinez makes no secret that he has wedded his political future to San Diego’s Republican Establishment, a union that has prompted Munoz and other Latino activists to label him a “coconut"--which they define as being brown on the outside but having the values of a white person inside.

“People are going to have opinions of me, but I think the most important thing for me is to remember to keep the perspective of what I think about myself and be realistic of what my capabilities are,” Martinez said in an interview late last week. “I think, given time, I’m capable of being anything that I want to be.

“And I will be what I want to be.”

But Madigan and others say there are insecurities that many don’t see.

For instance, Martinez is bothered by the fact that his mother, the most influential person in his life, died before she could see her son attain political success as a councilman, Murillo said.

“He’s a complicated guy,” added Madigan. “He’s not complicated in the sense of having a lot of different agendas, but he has a lot of different emotions of things . . . the desire to succeed for yourself and your family, and yet the insecurity of coming from a family that didn’t have a lot of money, having to scratch for things.”

Martinez was born in National City in 1942, the oldest of seven children. With his father off to war, he was shuttled among his aunt, grandmother and mother, who at one time ran a Mexican restaurant and later became active in community politics.

By the time he was 14, Martinez had grown to 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 175 pounds. He earned kudos at St. Augustine High School playing football, baseball and basketball before he graduated in 1960. During class hours, he was part of a patrol called the “Senior Vigilantes,” a group of students who made sure others didn’t walk on the grass or smoke at school.

“He was a cocky individual, but most good athletes are,” said Bill Whittaker, Martinez’s football coach and now the school’s athletic director.

After graduation, he married at 19, had his first child two years later, and spent several years attending local colleges while he worked as a “ramp rat” at the airport, loading luggage from Delta Air Lines flights early in the morning or late at night.

During those days, said Ron Cota, a fellow ramp rat who is now a San Diego insurance salesman, Martinez was already talking about politics. “I think it would be safe to say that he had some leadership aspirations, political aspirations,” said Cota.

Martinez credits his mother with “dragging me” into politics, and he was geared to work in the 1968 presidential campaign for Robert F. Kennedy before he was “turned off” by a promise the Democrats broke to supply a local Mexican organization with money. He remembered that, and in 1971 re-registered as a Republican to work on the campaign of a mayoral hopeful named Pete Wilson.

Martinez had met his political mentor. Shortly before Wilson won, Martinez was hired at City Hall in the Community Development Department. “Pete and I came into this building at the same time,” he said.

Now a bureaucrat, Martinez continued to cultivate Wilson. The mayor pioneered the city’s growth management plan, and Martinez, who was transferred to the Planning Department, was assigned to work on Wilson’s pet project. His patience paid off when, after passing him over in 1976 and 1978, a Republican majority on the City Council appointed Martinez to fill the empty 8th District seat in December, 1982.

Martinez inherited a district with a wide variety of constituencies. It encompasses popular Balboa Park, vibrant downtown redevelopment and portions of trendy Hillcrest, as well as more economically depressed areas such as Barrio Logan and San Ysidro. According to 1980 census data, the median income of $15,783 is among the lowest of the council districts, and its population is 36% Latino.

Some of his fellow Latinos repudiated Martinez from the start.

“He was selected by the white power structure in San Diego to represent our district when, in fact, all he has ever represented is the interests of the financiers, the bankers, the developers, the downtown city interests,” said Munoz of La Prensa San Diego.

That seemed to be the message when Martinez, the incumbent, lost his own district in the September, 1983, primary after he was challenged by community-activist lawyer Celia Ballesteros, who beat Martinez 55% to 39%. Martinez won citywide, however, and became further indebted to the Republican Establishment when fellow Councilman Bill Cleator helped him raise an estimated $40,000 to $50,000 for the campaign.

For Martinez, it was the first real victory from the voters. It gave him the mantle of political legitimacy and the victory, he recalled, was as sweet as “scoring the game-winning point at the buzzer in basketball.”

“I felt the same thing when I won my election,” he said. “I was kind of numb walking from the hotel room to the convention center. People were talking to me and light bulbs were flashing, and my dad’s next to me, and you’re kind of looking around and you see friends and you say hello. And then, all of a sudden, it’s like somebody turns on a light switch, and the whole thing is real.”

For a while, there was a honeymoon on the 10th floor of City Hall, where the council offices are located and palace politics are furious. City Hall insiders said that Martinez enjoyed his position as the “swing” vote on the nine-member council, often receiving interest from his Republican backers and the other faction led by Hedgecock.

But the honeymoon was to end.

Martinez angered the Republicans by chumming around with Hedgecock, who was beginning to feel heat from a spreading J. David & Co. scandal. They became incensed, said a public official who asked not to be identified, when Martinez joined with Hedgecock and other liberals to defeat the appointment of then-City Councilman Dick Murphy as deputy mayor, largely a ceremonial post.

“Martinez owed his political existence to the Republican Party and those on the council who voted to appoint him,” said the official. “So he owed us at least loyalty.

“The only loyalty he owes people is not to double-cross people on something that is personally important . . . the appointment of other members of the City Council (to committees). The Republican Establishment expects that kind of loyalty,” the official said, adding that Martinez would be free to vote as he wished on “substantive” issues like whether to approve the La Jolla Valley development.

“The so-called white power brokers, the Establishment in San Diego, did not put me on the City Council simply to sit there and vegetate and not be representative,” Martinez said.

In his district, Martinez’s record has received some mixed reviews. The councilman says he is proud of the new swimming pool and racquetball courts that the city has built in Barrio Logan and that the city has increased spending for new sidewalks and buildings in his district. He also cites his efforts to get the council to cut bus and trolley fares for senior citizens.

Rachael Ortiz, executive director of the Barrio Station neighborhood organization, said, “As far as Barrio Logan goes, he has done his job. The sidewalks are going to benefit thousands of people for decades to come . . . . Our kids will grow up with better self-esteem because their neighborhoods are improving--a lot.”

But Murillo, his top aide, concedes that Martinez’s delay in showing public concern during the San Ysidro tragedy in which 21 people were gunned down by James Huberty in a McDonald’s restaurant “really hurt him.” While Hedgecock was among the first politicians to arrive on the scene, meeting with national media in a publicity bonanza, Martinez waited to tour the southern tip of his district so he “wouldn’t be in the way,” said Murillo.

And Dave Dean, a real estate agent who serves on the Golden Hill Planning Committee, said he remembered a recent meeting of the community group during which Martinez showed up “dressed to the teeth, in a tuxedo and ruffled shirt, and pleasantly explained he had another place to go.”

Dean said Martinez sat down to address the group about conditional use permits, and how Golden Hill residents are against allowing additional “treatment centers” for alcoholism and other social problems.

“From my perspective, and at least the people on either side of me, he had to rely 100% on his aides at the meeting, who were feeding him note cards about what his position was, spelled out for him,” Dean said.

Al Ducheny, chairman of the Harborview Community Council, said he can’t forgive Martinez for backing a plan in early 1983 to put a shipyard on Port District property next to a proposed bayfront park in Barrio Logan.

Residents persuaded the California Coastal Commission to dump their councilman’s plan, and Martinez has remained aloof from further negotiations.

“Uvaldo Martinez, I truly feel he doesn’t represent our community,” Ducheny said. “He’s more interested in making points with businessmen, with politicos, with construction types that would later on prove very helpful if he was to run for mayor.”

In recent months, Martinez has focused his more publicized efforts on redevelopment, the darling of downtown businessmen. He pushed council measures in August to remove doors and curtains on peep show booths, and he posed defiantly in front of the Pleasureland bookstore for news photographers to prove his point.

Articles under his name and circulated by his office take on the transient problem. Martinez pledged in one that he “will do whatever it takes to get the rot gut booze off the streets of downtown.” Another referred to transients as “bums and petty hooligans,” vowing to “make them unwelcome throughout the city, not just in a few neighborhoods.”

An attorney for a church that offered free weekly meals to the homeless in Hillcrest said he is planning to take Martinez’s deposition in connection with a suit alleging that Martinez’s office was instrumental in having the city building department shut down the church. City records show that Martinez spent $42.50 for a lunch with a Hillcrest restaurateur to talk about “Hillcrest transient problems” a few months before the church was shut down.

But while Martinez was taking strong public stances against booze and freeloaders, he was wining and dining businessmen and friends at Dobson’s and other places and putting it on the taxpayer’s tab.

One regular who asked not to be identified told The Times that Martinez often spent six and seven hours at a time at Dobson’s, ordering drinks for women he didn’t know and heaping large tips on the tabs he paid with his city credit card.

The councilman began using his credit card heavily about a year ago, city records show. For instance, he charged a $110.40 meal at Dobson’s on Sept. 6, 1984. Martinez filed records showing he ate with Madigan and Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce President Lee Grissom, but both men said they did not dine with the councilman that day.

In one week in February, Martinez used his credit card for six meals, including two on Feb. 12 and two more on Feb. 14. The meals totalled $496.75, and Ray Carpenter, one of those included in a meal at DiCanti Ristorante, blamed the high tabs on the fact that “we had good wine on the taxpayer, too.”

Murillo, who also charged generously on his city credit card, said his boss was tempted to use the public account for meal and drinks to make him feel the equal of the businessmen and developers he was treating.

“You can imagine somebody coming from a pretty poor background, and you’re in an arena, you’re talking about fellow politicians, developers, business people in general,” Murillo said. “He’s in an arena where he would feel kind of awkward if they were always buying things for him. . . . I’m sure to a degree he doesn’t want to be patronized.”

At one point, Martinez told his staff to keep a close watch on his drinking and make sure he was drinking nothing stronger than a tonic and lime when on city business, said a confidant who asked that his name not be used. “I don’t care what you put in my hand, I’ll drink it,” the source said Martinez told his aides. Martinez confirmed that account.

Councilman Bill Cleator said there may be deeper reasons why Martinez seemed to go on a tax-supported eating binge.

“I’ve been told that there was a period there that he was very shook up about something and I don’t know what it was,” Cleator said. “I was told that he had something that was really gnawing at him. . . . I was told he had something that was really pressing on him, but maybe he was trying to escape from that.”

Martinez is closed-mouthed about what might have been bothering him. “It makes me feel good that Bill would perhaps mention some pressures I may have been feeling at that particular time. I don’t think I’m prepared to comment on it,” he said.

For a while, Martinez was commenting on the credit card fiasco, explaining that he paid for all those meals because he didn’t want to be “beholden” to the development special interests. But the news stories kept coming, and after the district attorney’s office said it was going to study his city paper work, the councilman hired a public relations man and an attorney.

The explanations Martinez promised early last week were rescheduled for later. Then, they were put off until sometime in October.

“He worked for years to get on the City Council,” said Los Angeles attorney Richard Hernandez, a prominent Latino Republican who helped Martinez establish and expand his political base. “He was refused entrance on a couple of occasions. Then when things started jelling together with Republicans and Hispanics, he got fortunate and was appointed and then ran.

“It’s a nice Cinderella story, especially for San Diego. It just doesn’t make sense that he would intentionally do something this minuscule to screw up such a good opportunity. . . . It’s suicide and he ain’t dumb.”

Times staff writers Glenn F. Bunting and Bill Ritter contributed to this story.