Primary Concerns 

Race, class and gumption in the March local elections

Wednesday, Jan 12 2000

So much for settling down to a long winter‘s nap. Since the Legislature in its wisdom has moved the primary from June to March, California voters have less than eight weeks to make up their minds on any number of crucial questions -- not least, who they think should be the presidential nominees. And by every indication I’ve seen, California voters have steadfastly refused to commence their contemplation. Presidential debates are popping up every other day now, but the frequency of debates seems in inverse proportion to the size of their viewership. An informal Powerlines poll of political people around L.A. failed to turn up a single one who actually had watched even part of a debate.

Sometime before the March 7 primary, of course, Californians will focus, in their fashion, on Bradley, Gore, McCain, Dubya, maybe Trump, maybe Nader, and the rest of the presidential and quasi-presidential gang. But the March ballot is also filled with down-ticket races that will be unusually important in shaping the future politics of both the city and the state. In L.A. County today, Democratic primaries are in most instances the decisive contests in legislative races, with all of the county save its easternmost extremes either solidly or marginally Democratic. Thanks to the miracle of term limits, there are open and highly competitive Democratic primaries all over town. And a few of them actually provide an opportunity to build the kind of class-based progressive politics the city so desperately needs.

For starters, there‘s the challenge that State Senator Hilda Solis is mounting against longtime Congressman Marty Martinez out in the Monterey Park--Alhambra--El Monte district on the Eastside. For Democrats who’ve been complaining about the rightward drift of their party, for anyone who‘s concerned about lackluster congressional representation, this is the race for you.

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Marty Martinez is one of those temporary solutions who’s turned into a permanent problem. Back in 1980, then-Assemblyman Howard Berman, embroiled in a battle for the speakership, recruited Martinez to run for the Assembly. Martinez won, and, in the reapportionment two years later, when Congressman Phil Burton saw the chance to create a new Democratic-Latino congressional district on the Eastside, Martinez was elevated to congressman.

In the subsequent two decades, Martinez has become the least impressive of his two distinguished patrons‘ proteges. (Indeed, Berman’s not supporting Martinez in this year‘s primary.) There are no significant Martinez achievements to point to, and he’s grown so out of touch with his district that 45 local elected officials have publicly endorsed Solis.

On two crucial issues, globalization and gun control, Martinez -- not to put too fine a point on it -- is a disgrace.

Late in 1997, congressional Democrats were confronted with the controversy over the administration‘s “fast-track” proposal. The Clinton White House was seeking the authority to negotiate all future trade treaties in such a way that Congress could only vote them up or down, without the ability to amend them. Labor and its allies insisted that this kind of blanket authority would be acceptable only if there was a guarantee of worker rights and environmental standards in all such agreements. Since no guarantee was forthcoming, and since their experience with NAFTA had shown that, absent such guarantees, those considerations would be ignored, they asked congressional Democrats to oppose fast-track.

In the end, only 42 of the 205 House Democrats supported the White House. Though many California Democrats had voted for NAFTA four years previous, this time all but a few opposed fast-track -- and hardly any from working-class districts, where free trade according to the NAFTA model has helped depress wages. Three of the four Latino members from L.A. -- Xavier Becerra, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Esteban Torres -- went from pro-NAFTA positions to anti-fast-track. Marty Martinez, who’d opposed NAFTA in ‘93, went the other way.

As Martinez explained it to me at the time, this wasn’t quite the result of an ideological reappraisal. In essence, he swapped his support for the administration in return for the administration‘s approval of the 710 freeway extension. As the fast-track vote approached, Martinez began complaining long and loud to White House officials that they’d been holding up their blessing of the project -- a priority in Alhambra, where the 710 currently ends, but a nightmare in El Sereno and South Pasadena, where hundreds of homes will have to be leveled if the freeway ever goes through. After speaking to Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and Clinton himself, Martinez announced that he‘d support the White House in its fast-track quest. Five days later, the Federal Highway Administration announced its approval of the 710 extension (which environmental and neighborhood groups have tied up in the courts).

If Martinez left environmentalists fuming, he left labor furious. Though labor was mounting its most serious lobbying effort in years, he neglected to tell any union rep that he was suddenly going south on an issue with huge implications for his working-class constituents. “We were under the impression that he’d committed to stay with the unions,” said L.A. County Federation of Labor leader Miguel Contreras at the time. “It shocked everybody because he was with us initially.”

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