In what could become one of the hottest June primary election campaigns in the San Gabriel Valley, former Monterey Park Mayor Lily Lee Chen has announced that she will run against Rep. Matthew G. (Marty) Martinez (D-Monterey Park) in the 30th Congressional District.
Chen has taken an unpaid leave of absence from her job as director of public affairs for the county Department of Children’s Services to devote full time to winning the Democratic nomination. She also has opened a campaign office in Alhambra, hired a political consultant and begun fund-raising efforts.
Martinez, who has been in Congress since 1982, said he has defeated well-financed and well-known candidates in prior elections and can do so again. And he noted that Chen failed last year to win reelection to the Monterey Park City Council.
“It strikes me as funny that she couldn’t hold onto her council seat, but now she wants to go to Congress,” Martinez said.
The election takes on added interest because Chen, who was born in China, is running in a district with a large and growing Asian population. The district was 54% Latino and only 9% Asian in the 1980 census, but since then the Asian population has increased substantially. For example, one city in the district, Monterey Park, has gone from 33% Asian to 51% since 1980. The city’s Latino population has declined from 39% to 31% in that same period, according to a special count in 1986 by the U. S. Census Bureau.
The 30th Congressional District also takes in the cities of Alhambra, Azusa, Bell, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Cudahy, El Monte, Irwindale, Maywood, Montebello, Rosemead, San Gabriel and Vernon and part of unincorporated East Los Angeles. Party registration is nearly 60% Democratic.
Chen said that although she will seek to appeal to all voters, the changing demographics of the area should benefit her campaign.
But Martinez, who also is a former Monterey Park mayor, said it is significant that Chen could not keep her council seat in the most heavily Asian city in the district. And, he said, he has some support from Asian residents himself. In addition, said George Pla, one of Martinez’s political advisers, many Asian voters are Republicans who will be unable to vote in the Democratic primary.
Don T. Nakanishi, a UCLA assistant education professor who has analyzed voter registration in Monterey Park, said the percentage of Chinese-Americans who are Democrats has been slipping. In 1984, 43% of the city’s Chinese-American were Democrats, he said, but by last year registration totals were about evenly divided, with one-third Democrats, one-third Republicans and one-third without a party affiliation.
That means, he said, that about two-thirds of the Chinese-Americans in Monterey Park--a group that might be expected to vote heavily for Chen--will be unable to vote in the Democratic primary.
Chen said she will build her campaign on a pledge to provide legislative leadership and service to constituents.
She said Martinez “has been a disappointment to the district.”
“I am a better candidate,” she said. “I have a better record of achievement.”
Chen, 51, was elected to the Monterey Park City Council in 1982 and later became the first Chinese-American woman to serve as mayor of a U. S. city. During her four-year council term, she worked to obtain a $1.7-million state grant for an auditorium and cafeteria at an elementary school, sought pollution controls at the Operating Industries landfill and organized a project to teach Asian newcomers basic English.
She was among three incumbents who were swept out of office in 1986 by opponents who charged that the council had allowed Monterey Park to become overgrown with unsightly and ill-conceived commercial and residential projects, resulting in traffic congestion, crowded schools and overburdened municipal services.
Martinez, 58, ran an upholstery shop in Monterey Park before entering politics. He won election to the City Council in 1974, then scored a surprising victory in 1980 to take an Assembly seat from 16-year incumbent Jack Fenton by defeating him in the Democratic primary.
The primary victory was engineered with money and expertise provided by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles), who was then in the Assembly and wanted to oust Fenton as part of a plan to win the Assembly speakership.
In 1982, reapportionment created new congressional districts, and Martinez, with help from the Westside political organization of Berman and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) won a special election to replace George Danielson, who had resigned to become an appeals court justice. Martinez then defeated Republican John Rousselot, a congressman who had lost his district through reapportionment, in a heated campaign in which Rousselot spent more than $1 million.
Two years later, Danielson’s wife, Gladys C. (Candy) Danielson, ran in the Democratic primary against Martinez, charging that he was a political “lightweight” who “hasn’t done anything” for the district. Martinez defeated her by a 3-to-1 ratio.
But Chen said the congressman’s performance is reflected in a California Magazine article last year that ranked him 44th among the state’s 45 congressmen in a survey based on intelligence, integrity, diligence and effectiveness. Martinez said the article was superficial and uninformed.
Chen also said Martinez had a “very high” rate of turnover in his office staff. She said the frequent changes create difficulties for constituents.
But Martinez said constituents who have dealt with his office often send him letters of commendation. “If this were a business, I would say we had a lot of satisfied customers,” he said.
If Martinez survives the Democratic primary, he will still face a challenge in November. Two Republicans, Ralph Roy Ramirez, an insurance agent, and Mike Radlovic, a real estate broker, have started campaigning for the seat.