A peculiar election year is nothing new to state Rep. Elvin Martinez, the perennially popular West Tampa Democrat. In 1986, while awaiting trial on charges that he lied to a grand jury by denying he used drugs, Martinez won re-election with 64 percent of the vote. A month later, he was acquitted.
Now, as Martinez awaits sentencing this week for failing to file federal income tax returns on time, he faces political challenges on several fronts, including a possible rival from within his own party.
Democrat Angelo Perez, a history professor at Hillsborough Community College, said he is considering trying to oust Martinez, who has served in the state Legislature every year but four since 1966.
"Yes, yes, I'm thinking about it," said Perez, a 53-year-old Ybor City native. "I'd like to see a teacher on the Legislature. Everybody makes all these decisions about education except educators."
Republicans also are taking a shot at Martinez, partly hoping that his legal problems will take a toll on his seemingly irrepressible popularity. In 1988, Martinez was re-elected without opposition.
"It's about time he let go," said Gladys Levy, a West Tampa community activist and Cuban immigrant who will try to unseat Martinez.
Levy, 59, who ran unsuccessfully for the Tampa City Council in 1983 and 1987, formally announced her campaign Tuesday during a Republican fund-raiser at the Tampa Club.
Tampa police Cpl. Gary Bradford, another Republican, also said at the fund-raiser that he might enter the race.
"I am considering it, but I am not committed," said Bradford, 31.
Republican party leaders, whose chances of unseating Martinez might depend on convincing Tampa's traditionally Democratic Hispanic voters to jump party lines, believe the veteran politician's most recent legal defeat could be their saving grace.
In December, Martinez was convicted of failing to file federal income tax returns on time for 1983, 1984 and 1985 so that he could postpone payment of $31,492 in taxes. Scheduled to be sentenced Thursday in federal court, Martinez faces up to three years in prison and $225,000 in fines.
Because the offenses are misdemeanors and not felonies, Martinez faces no automatic censure by the Legislature and will not have to resign or be suspended from his seat.
"Those legal problems have been following him for years," said Marjorie Kincaid, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Republican Executive Committee. "People remember a number of things he's been charged with. They always think that where there's smoke, there's fire. I think the people of that district are ready for some good, clean government."
Martinez, who plans to appeal his conviction, said he sees no signs that the conviction has sullied his reputation or scared off supporters. The charges against him were political, he said.
"People still come to me, and I've seen no indication that (the legal troubles have) detracted from my ability to serve the people," said Martinez, 55. "If I didn't feel comfortable, I would not have run."
Steve Powell, chairman of the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee, said competitors will find it difficult to unseat Martinez in House District 65.
"I'm not aware of any feeling within the party or within that community that would suggest that Elvin's support out there has eroded," he said.
Powell said he was not aware that Perez also was considering challenging Martinez.
Republicans are offering several other candidates in hopes of grabbing some of Hillsborough's eight state House seats from Democrats. At Tuesday's fund-raiser, attended by Republican U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, airline technician Kelly Butts announced plans to challenge state Rep. Brian Rush, D-Tampa.
Republicans said they also hope to find opponents for state Reps. S.L. "Spud" Clements Jr., D-Brandon, and Ron Glickman, D-Tampa.