Uncivil War : Some Say Combative Assemblywoman Diane Martinez Faces Tough Challenge From Ex-Supporter Turned Opponent

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More than a few people in Sacramento call Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park) "Miss Congeniality"--a joke about her combative approach, her feuds with legislators of both parties and her take-no-prisoners approach to her job.

And, in spite of her incumbency and support of the Democratic leadership, some are predicting that she is going to need every fighting bone in her body to ward off a primary challenge by a former longtime supporter and major campaign contributor, real estate developer Benjamin "Frank" Venti.

"Diane may be stronger on the issues," said Monterey Park Councilman Francisco Alonso, who endorses neither candidate. "But Frank has been out there going door to door, and she could be in for a rude awakening unless she gets her campaign going."

Indeed, Venti's campaign may be especially timely, given the controversial ruling this week by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals legalizing physician-assisted suicides. His main point of contention with Martinez has been her support for a California "right to die" law.

And Venti has the funds to publicize his message in the heavily Catholic district. With more than $100,000 of his own money and a pledge to spend more if necessary, the wealthy 58-year-old Alhambra developer is waging a war with billboards, street signs and cable television ads condemning Martinez's sponsorship of a bill that would have legalized doctor-assisted suicides.

Until the introduction of that legislation last year, Venti was among her biggest boosters, contributing $13,600 worth of office space to her campaign and becoming her appointee to the county Democratic Central Committee.

But after she introduced the bill, he resigned, citing the Catholic Church's opposition to physician-assisted suicide.

Martinez moved her office out of Venti's building, saying it was infested with ants.

Disputes with friends, former friends and foes are nothing new to the 42-year-old legislator, who is seeking her third term.

"If people find me intimidating, that's too damn bad," Martinez said. "People are tired of go-along politicians."

Her clashes with Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) are so intense that Bowen told The Times last year, "Some people have suggested we put our fighting to good use by holding a mud wrestling fund-raiser and donating the proceeds to the Democratic Party."

In a 1993 committee hearing, Martinez was accused of impugning fellow Democrat and then-Senate leader David Roberti's Italian heritage--unknowingly, she said--by saying he was "acting like a godfather."

And she took a dig at Democratic Assembly leader Richard Katz recently, telling The Times he "will be a leader who turns around and finds no one behind him."

Assembly Republicans say they tend to tune her out as she rises to speak, and she typically returns the favor.

When Republicans gained control of the Assembly and danced on the chamber floor to the Beatles song "Revolution," Martinez said, "The Beatles wouldn't have had anything to do with these bozos."

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On the campaign trail, Venti calls Martinez, the daughter of Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park), an ineffective legislator, citing a recent survey of lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists in the California Journal--the insider's guide to Sacramento politics--that rated her among the worst in the Assembly.

Martinez wears her ranking in the survey like a badge of honor. She said voters like the fact that she is a divorced single mother "giving 'em hell."

Venti portrays himself as an outsider who will bring to Sacramento 35 years of experience building a business empire and homes while creating jobs.

But Martinez dismisses Venti's challenge, calling him a "pro-life religious fanatic," someone far too conservative to win the liberal district.

Although she withdrew the "death with dignity bill," Martinez said she would reintroduce it to a Democratic-controlled Assembly.

As to her effectiveness, Martinez points to the several successful bills she's sponsored: forcing employers to allow women employees to wear pants to work, clearing the way for the Long Beach Freeway extension, a toughened rape law that denies suspects the use of victims' alcohol consumption as a defense and forcing convicted rapists to divulge their HIV status.

Both candidates claim the mantle of education supporter, advocate state-supported anti-poverty programs and pledge to be tough-on-crime supporters of the death penalty. But that's about all they have in common.

Venti is opposed to abortion and gambling, same-sex marriages and classroom discussions of homosexuality.

In contrast, Martinez, a former Garvey school board member, supports the right to an abortion, backs same-sex marriages and says children should know about alternative lifestyles.

In a district with more than 50% Latino voters including parts of Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel, Rosemead, Temple City, El Monte, Los Angeles and unincorporated East Los Angeles, Italian American Venti is campaigning alongside his Mexican American wife, Marta Gonzales Venti.

As of Feb. 10, Venti had raised $76,000--primarily from himself--while Martinez had $3,311 on hand, election records show. Venti said he has since injected an additional $50,000 into his campaign.

"Five years ago I wouldn't have given him a chance," said Alan Heslop, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

"But with the riptide against incumbents, you can't count any outsider out."

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