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Martinez Switches to GOP in His Final Term

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his 18 years in Congress, Rep. Matthew G. Martinez has gone about his job in relative obscurity. But on Wednesday, the lame-duck legislator from the San Gabriel Valley became the talk of Capitol Hill as he switched his party registration from Democrat to Republican.

Martinez, denied renomination in California’s March primary, was a star attraction at a GOP gathering, appearing alongside House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and drawing slaps on the back from his new Republican colleagues.

In the closely divided House--Republicans will now have a seven-vote margin in the chamber--GOP leaders sought to play up the defection.

Never mind that Martinez will not be back in January--and that he almost assuredly will be replaced by a Democrat, state Sen. Hilda Solis of El Monte.

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House Democrats scoffed at the effect of the switch, calling it nothing more than a parting shot by a bitter lame duck who has been voting more like a Republican than a Democrat since losing the primary.

Still, the day’s back-and-forth underscored the political theater consuming Capitol Hill in the intense fight for control of the House.

It is rare for members of Congress to switch parties. But when they do, it is usually because they want to join the party in power or believe that they stand a better chance of winning a race under a different party label.

“What I can’t ever remember is somebody losing a primary and then bolting his party,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington.

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GOP leaders trumpeted the defection of Martinez--the most senior Latino in Congress--as a powerful symbol of their efforts to broaden the party’s appeal.

“It’s a real psychological boost for us,” said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas).

John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and author of the book “The Art of Political Warfare,” gave the Republicans credit for trying to make the most of the moment. “You always try to psych out the other side through defectors in war and in politics.”

But Pitney did not see the switch as having much effect. “It has far more to do with Mr. Martinez’s feelings of bitterness about his treatment at the hands of the Democrats,” he said.

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And Mann said: “It’s irrelevant to what happens after November.”

Martinez, 71, was decisively defeated in the primary by Solis, 42, who argued that he had lost touch with the district and that voters needed a more assertive legislator to represent them. She has no GOP opponent in the solidly Democratic 31st Congressional District.

When told of Martinez’s defection, Solis laughed. “It’s really a sad commentary,” she said.

In his comments to his new GOP colleagues, Martinez said: “I’d like to cast some sensible votes rather than senseless votes.”

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Hastert said: “Marty isn’t the only Democrat--now a former Democrat--who agrees with Republican values.”

This is not Martinez’s first brush with the GOP--he was a registered Republican as a young businessman. But he became a Democrat in the early 1970s, shortly before he began his political career as a Monterey Park city councilman.

A protege of the once-dominant local Democratic political organization headed by Reps. Howard Berman of Mission Hills and Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, Martinez was first elected to the House in 1982.

Until this year, Martinez was a reliable pro-labor Democratic vote. For instance, he toed the party line 92% of the time last year, according to Congressional Quarterly.

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But a recent Times analysis found that, since his primary loss, he has sided with a majority of Democrats on only about 18% of the votes that clearly split along party lines.

Martinez complained Wednesday that, throughout much of his congressional career, he has been abandoned by Democratic leaders. He said that the late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.) once hung up the telephone on him and that a top aide to Vice President Al Gore had failed to return his call seeking Gore’s endorsement this year.

Referring to Democratic leaders, he said: “They say one thing and do something else. I’m getting tired of being a part of that.”

A spokeswoman for House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said that Martinez’s change of allegiance will not “affect what we do here one iota.”

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Martinez said he has no plans to run as a write-in GOP candidate. But he also said that, after leaving office in January, “I’m going to get very active in the Republican Party.”


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