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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / ASSEMBLY DISTRICTS : Becerra Darts Past Two Favorites in 59th : Politics: Marguerite Archie-Hudson beats L.A. Councilman Robert Farrell in the 48th. In District 54, Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. wins reelection.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Xavier Becerra, a deputy attorney general often called the “unknown candidate” in the campaign for the 59th Assembly District seat, astounded political opponents and confounded political analysts by toppling the two leading contenders.

Becerra, 32, won the seat that nearly everyone said would be won by either Diane Martinez, daughter of Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park) or by Marta Maestas, district representative of state Sen. Charles M. Calderon.

Rio Hondo Community College District board member Bill E. Hernandez and marketing consultant Larry Salazar trailed with 6% of the vote each in the district that includes Alhambra, Montebello, Monterey Park, Pico Rivera, South El Monte, and parts of Whittier.

Becerra’s victory was not the only surprise in contests for Assembly seats. Marguerite Archie-Hudson, a UCLA administrator, beat Los Angeles City Councilman Robert Farrell in the Democratic primary for the 48th District.

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But in District 54, Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount) won his bid for reelection despite his opposition to gun control and support for malathion spraying.

Thomas J. Mays, the conservative mayor of Huntington Beach, fended off a strong, well-financed challenge by a moderate from Long Beach Tuesday to win the Republican nomination in the 58th Assembly District.

Mays will face Democrat Luanne W. Pryor in the November contest to succeed Dennis Brown (R-Los Alamitos) as representative of the district stretching from Huntington Beach to Long Beach.

Becerra is expected to win the 59th Assembly District seat vacated by Calderon, who won a special state Senate election in April.

The seat has belonged to a Democrat for the last two decades. Becerra will face Republican primary winner Leland Lieberg and Libertarian candidate Steven Pencall in November.

Political opponents, analysts and even some members of Becerra’s campaign said they were surprised by his victory because his foes had every ingredient necessary in a successful campaign. Both Maestas and Martinez are lifelong San Gabriel Valley residents. Both are active in the community, and both had impressive lists of well-known local political supporters. Becerra has lived in the district about three years and has been a registered Democrat for about the same period.

“It’s incredible,” one Maestas staff member said. “He came from nowhere.”

At a raucous victory party in Montebello, a proud Becerra campaign worker put it another way.

“Eight weeks ago, nobody knew who he was. Now everybody will,” she said as jubilant supporters embraced Becerra and spoke about Becerra for governor.

Political consultants and adversaries attribute Becerra’s victory to his position as a deputy attorney general, an aggressive mail campaign that emphasized a tough stance against crime and more ethics in government and the probability that Martinez and Maestas split the women’s vote.

“I think the electorate went for the outsider candidate because they are tired of seeing business as usual. They want a change,” Calderon said.

Becerra attributed his victory to strong grass-roots organization.

“I didn’t win the race. We won the race.” he said as he arrived at the celebration with his wife, Carolina, and his chief supporter, state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles).

Like Salazar and Hernandez, Becerra spent much of the campaign trying to convince the media, undecided voters and local politicians that he was a viable contender. The Salazar and Hernandez campaigns, which had neither the manpower nor the money of the Becerra campaign, never gained momentum.

In the final weeks, Becerra raised more and spent more than either Maestas or Martinez. A quiet man with a boyishly sincere appearance, Becerra suddenly became aggressive in the last two weeks, attacking Martinez for running a joint campaign with her father and Maestas for sharing expenses with her boss, Calderon.

In turn, Martinez accused Becerra of being a “hypocrite” because Torres helped Becerra raise much of his $80,000 war chest.

Though there has been much speculation that the race had turned into a back-room power struggle among Calderon, Torres and Martinez, the candidates and their chief supporters dismissed the suggestions as “nonsense.”

“We finally get to see who is more powerful, me, Art (Torres) or Matt (Martinez),” Calderon joked before the polls closed.

Almost two hours after Becerra declared victory, Maestas, her family and Calderon joined the dwindling number of supporters as Maestas, fighting back tears, said: “It looks like it is over.”

Martinez, who comes from a family whose members have never lost any political race they entered, seemed unfazed by her defeat.

“I feel fine,” she said. “It’s over, and hopefully Becerra will live up to the promises he has made.”

She said she did not believe a split vote contributed to Becerra’s victory and attributed her defeat to a hard-hitting mailer issued by the Maestas campaign five days before the election.

The brochure, which advised voters to take a second look at the leading candidates, said Martinez could face criminal prosecution over illegal campaign contributions. It also targeted Becerra as a “radical left-wing” Citizen’s Party member in a Democrat’s clothing.

Both Martinez and Becerra decried the flyer as one that was “full of lies and distortions.”

Though the mailer targeted both Martinez and Becerra, Martinez said the items describing her were more negative. Her campaign manager, Chuck Levin, accused the Maestas people of smudging Martinez’s photo in the brochure to make her appear “less attractive.” Martinez also said Becerra’s wife put out a letter ridiculing the potholders Martinez’s father traditionally sends out before each election.

“I got hit harder than anybody else,” Martinez said. “I hope this sends a strong, clear message to Calderon, who is the Darth Vader of politics, and Maestas that those dirty, slimy politics don’t buy them anything.”

* ELECTION TABLES: J4


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