Martinez, Mintz Express Relief at Successful End to Judicial Races
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Martinez, whom Alhambra Judicial District voters overwhelmingly returned to the bench Tuesday eight months after a poor primary showing, said yesterday he was "just relieved" that the race was over.
"It was a long, arduous process," Martinez said, a day after unofficial final returns showed him besting challenger Maria Vargas-Rodriguez by more than 13,000 votes, with 62.71 percent to the challenger's 37.29 percent.
"We got a lot of friends together and we just worked very hard," the judge said.
The gap was far smaller in the county's only other judicial race, in which prosecutor David Mintz defeated attorney Vicki Roberts by a 53.46 percent to 46.54 percent margin in the Los Angeles Judicial District.
Roberts, who did virtually no fundraising and was tagged with a "Not Qualified" rating from the Los Angeles County Bar Association, ran strong, with 336,183 votes to Mintz's 386,106.
Roberts said she had no regrets about opting against fundraising, even though it conceivably could have made a difference in her race.
"I ran a campaign that refused campaign contributions, and I was offered substantial contributions," Roberts said. "I did what I did on principle. This was a judicial race. I do not regret going with my principles on that."
Mintz also said he was relieved his race was over. Election season was extended because California moved its presidential primary, traditionally held in June, to March 7.
"This has been going on for almost a year now," Mintz said of the combined primary and runoff campaigns. "I've put a lot of time and effort into it."
Of the four candidates, Mintz was the only one who did not end up in court on a campaign-related lawsuit. Martinez sued Vargas-Rodriguez over allegedly misleading campaign materials and Roberts sued the County Bar for breach of contract arising from the rating.
The Roberts suit is set for hearing in December. The Martinez suit is arguably moot, but a hearing date is set for later this month.
The campaigns for the two seats marked the end of elections by municipal court district in Los Angeles County. Although voting proceeded as if the candidates were running for municipal court seats, they were elected to the Superior Court in the wake of this year's court unification process and could be assigned to sit anywhere in the county.
Future judicial candidates in Los Angeles will have to run on countywide ballots, where candidate statements will cost more. Door-to-door campaigns by the candidates and their supporters—a mainstay of municipal court campaigns in smaller districts like Alhambra this year and in years past—are likely to be replaced by more costly, less personal campaigning.
In Martinez's district, which includes Alhambra, Monterey Park, San Gabriel and Temple City, both candidates raised more than $150,000 and spent heavily on mail.
But Vargas-Rodriguez also took the unusual of step of buying television time on local cable outlets, a move that the political consultant who steered Mintz's effort called not worth the trouble in a local judicial race.
"Cable is a waste of money," Fred Huebscher said, "especially in a low-visibility election."
Victor Griego, Vargas-Rodriguez's consultant in the primary campaign that garnered her a surprise first-place finish, said his ex-client proved unable to get her message out over the long haul.
He noted that Vargas-Rodriguez returned none of his calls after the primary, in which she garnered 38 percent of the vote, to 35 percent for Martinez. Llewellyn Chin finished third with about 25 percent.
"If she can't communicate with someone who helped her win the primary, how can she communicate with thousands of voters?" Griego asked.
Vargas-Rodriguez also did not return calls from the MetNews.
Cerrell Associates, Inc., the firm of judicial campaign maven Joe Cerrell, represented Martinez in his primary campaign. But the judge dropped Cerrell after his second-place finish, spent several weeks interviewing others, and ultimately hired Mark Siegel—a novice at judicial campaigns.
Siegel steered Martinez to victory with a heavy emphasis on mail, including mailers in Chinese for the district's growing immigrant population.
Martinez, a 19-year veteran of the Alhambra bench, also secured the endorsement of Chin, who was expected to deliver many of the votes he captured in the primary, and relied on a committee of prominent Chinese Americans in the San Gabriel Valley, including longtime Monterey Park City Councilwoman and Mayor Judy Chu.
The lawsuit that Martinez filed, based on Vargas-Rodriguez primary mailers that showed her dressed in black between two robed judges and allegedly implied that she was the incumbent, almost backfired.
The Orange Superior Court judge who heard Martinez's motion for preliminary injunction denied relief because Martinez had not first sought a ruling from a special County Bar panel set up to resolve judicial campaign disputes.
When Martinez did go to the County Bar, so did Vargas-Rodriguez, with claims that the incumbent knowingly took contributions from lawyers who had cases pending before him.
The County Bar found both candidates in the wrong, and the Pasadena Star-News, which reaches many voters in the district, found Martinez's transgressions more severe and endorsed Vargas-Rodriguez.
It wasn't enough.
"I don't think we were expecting the margin of victory, but we were expecting to win," Siegel said. "People didn't know about Judge Martinez in the primary. In the [general] election we were able to get his message out. The more voters heard, the more they liked. I think the opposite is true of [Vargas-Rodriguez]."
Siegel said he was "very proud" of the win in his first judicial campaign, and said he would like to handle more in the future. But he declined to criticize Cerrell for Martinez's performance in the primary.
"Cerrell still remains the preeminent campaign consultant when it comes to judges," Siegel said. "Vargas-Rodriguez sent out some hit pieces, and Martinez and his consultant were caught a little flat-footed."
Heubscher, who handled the Mintz campaign, said he was pleased with his candidate's performance.
Currently a deputy district attorney in San Fernando, Mintz said he would prefer to be assigned to a criminal court.
"Obviously that's where my experience is," Mintz said. "But the assignment is up to the presiding judge."
Mintz assumes his new post in January. James Bascue becomes the Superior Court's presiding judge in January as well, but he has already begun to make some court assignments.
Mintz came in first on March 7, ahead of Roberts, Superior Court Commissioner John Ladner, Deputy District Attorney David Stuart, Superior Court Commissioner John Slawson, and attorney Ronald Silverton.
He was long considered the front-runner in the runoff, given his occupation as a criminal prosecutor and the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times.
But Roberts, too, produced an eclectic array of endorsements, from mayoral candidate and Congressman Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, to actor Red Buttons.
"I think that what we did in this race was phenomenal," Roberts said. "Here's the beauty of what we did this time. The support base that I received and the contacts that I made have laid the groundwork for whatever I choose to do. And I have 336,000 new friends out there."
Roberts said she has been approached about running for the Legislature.
Copyright Metropolitan News Company, 2000