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Two Incumbent Congressmen Facing Tough Challenges

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A tough renomination fight is rare enough for a veteran lawmaker. But as Rep. Matthew G. (Marty) Martinez (D-Monterey Park) struggles to stave off a strong challenge in California’s March 7 primary, his worries include not only defections by longtime allies but within his own family.

State Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente) is running hard against Martinez, charging he has proved a “lackluster” legislator during his 18 years in the House.

The race in the 31st District has divided labor unions, which solidly supported Martinez in the past. It has split local Latino leaders, despite Martinez’s status as Congress’ most senior Latino member. And it has cost Martinez the backing of his sister.

“This is the first time I will not be supporting my brother,” said Helen Lujan, a Valle Lindo School District board member from South El Monte. She said Martinez simply does not spend enough time anymore in his district, which includes East Los Angeles, Alhambra, Baldwin Park, El Monte, Monterey Park, Rosemead, San Gabriel, South El Monte, Irwindale and Azusa.

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“We see Hilda, and we don’t see Matthew,” Lujan said.

The contest is being closely watched by other members of California’s congressional delegation, who worry that because of term limits, they could be the next targets of ambitious state legislators. The limits, which apply to state offices but not to Congress, prevent Solis from seeking reelection in 2002.

“It’s a Darwinian world out there,” said Jack Pitney, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “When a politician shows signs of weakness, the other politicians start circling.”

Added Martinez: “What term limits has created is cannibalism in both parties. Before it was the other party that was fair game. Now, it’s ‘take out your own.’ ”

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In a sure sign of Solis’ competitiveness, she swamped Martinez in campaign contributions, raising about $290,000 through the end of last year compared with the incumbent’s $116,000.

Still, a Solis win would cut against the political grain. Throughout the 1990s, only two California House members were upended in primary races. In 1998, Rep. Jay Kim (R-Diamond Bar) lost after pleading guilty to accepting illegal campaign contributions and trying to campaign while sentenced to home detention. In 1992, Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), an 18-year incumbent, was defeated by multimillionaire Michael Huffington.

Martinez, 71, dismisses Solis, 42, as just another face in a crowd of challengers who have tried to oust him over the years. “It gets vague after a while,” he said.

But Martinez has made it clear that he was steamed at Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) for what he considered a breach of protocol in endorsing his opponent. He recently called Sanchez a “freaking idiot.”

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Sanchez said she told Martinez that in 1996, Solis lent early support to her successful bid to upset conservative icon Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove).

Sanchez added that Martinez “didn’t know why I would help somebody against an incumbent. I said, ‘Marty, you might ask that question of yourself.’ ”

Martinez won a seat in the Assembly by upsetting a veteran Democratic incumbent in the party’s 1980 primary. He then went on to win a special election to fill a vacant House seat in 1982.

Also backing Solis is former Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Pico Rivera). “I just happen to believe that Solis as a state senator is just a much more responsive and effective person,” said Torres, who served with Martinez in the House for 16 years.

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But several Democrats among California’s House delegation are sticking with Martinez, including Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles, Grace Napolitano of Los Angeles and Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson. But Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), whose local political machine helped Martinez early in his career, are staying neutral, as is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

This is one contest in which the primary winner is virtually assured election. Democrats so outnumber Republicans in the district--57% to 23%--that no GOP candidate is running. The district also is among the state’s most heavily ethnic; according to the 1990 Census, 58% of its residents were Latino, 23% Asian American.

One constant for Martinez over the years has been unstinting support from union leaders--the AFL-CIO gives him a career grade of 95% for his votes on key labor issues.

But that was not enough for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which backs Solis. Said county labor leader Miguel Contreras: “A lot of people thought that we needed not just . . . people who would vote the right way, but warriors in Washington.”

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Helping persuade Contreras and others that Solis was what they sought was her active work for the successful 1996 initiative that raised the state’s minimum wage to $5.75 an hour.

Martinez scoffed at Solis’ labor endorsements. “They don’t mean a damn thing. When I first ran [for state Assembly] in 1980, every single union endorsed the incumbent and I still won.”

Martinez can still count on his share of labor backing. “Marty has stood with us,” said Chuck Loveless, director of legislation for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, explaining his group’s endorsement of the incumbent.

But others lining up behind Solis include the state Democratic Party and EMILY’s List, which helps women candidates who support abortion rights and which sent out a fund-raising appeal on Solis’ behalf to its 50,000 members nationwide.

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Solis also has been touting her endorsement by Handgun Control Inc., part of her effort to spotlight gun control as an issue.

Martinez, a member of the National Rifle Assn., was the only California Democrat to vote for an NRA-backed gun control measure in the House last year. The measure helped stall a push for tougher gun-control proposals that grew out of the Columbine High School massacre.

Solis and the Martinez family have tangled before. In 1998, one of Martinez’s daughters, ex-Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park), threatened a primary race against Solis before running unsuccessfully for state insurance commissioner. Another daughter, Susie Martinez-Baker, ran for her sister’s Assembly seat two years ago, but lost to a candidate backed by Solis.

Martinez touts as his major accomplishments his work on education issues, such as pushing to change the Higher Education Act of 1965 to lower interest rates on student loans and securing federal funding for training teachers.

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He has championed the extension of the Long Beach Freeway into Pasadena, an effort tied up in litigation. And he takes pride in helping constituents solve problems with the federal bureaucracy, pointing to a small room of wall-to-wall file cabinets in his Alhambra office filled with local cases.

“All these accusations [Solis] is making are the same ones made every time. Like, my not being present in the district. How can you be present when you’re busy working for the district [in Washington] 3,000 miles away?”

Martinez does not dispute the characterization by Congressional Quarterly’s “Politics in America” publication that he is “one of the lower-profile members” of the House.

“I don’t need the publicity,” he said. “I like to help people in my district without the fanfare.”

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As the primary campaign heats up, some Martinez supporters have been warning him to take Solis more seriously.

“Marty, you need to get out there more,” Alhambra school board member Barbara Messina recently urged him over coffee at a local diner. “Hilda is all over. All over. And you’re running out of time. You don’t have time.”

Asked about his sister’s endorsement of Solis, Martinez laughed, then betrayed slight resentment. “If you don’t agree with [your sibling] over politics, would you go out and work against them?” he asked.

Martinez, one of nine children, was raised in East Los Angeles, served in the Marines and attended Los Angeles Trade Technical College. He operated an upholstery shop when he won a seat on the Monterey Park City Council in 1974 and served two terms, including a stint as mayor.

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Solis, daughter of a union shop steward, was raised in La Puente and was the first of seven children in her family to attend college. She received her bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona and her master’s in public administration from USC.

She worked in the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs during the Carter administration. She returned to California and ran a program to help students prepare for college. She was elected to the Rio Hondo Community College board of trustees in 1985 and to the Assembly in 1992. She then became the first Latina elected to the state Senate in 1994.

Simon reported from Washington and Olivo from Los Angeles.


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