His name isn’t on the election ballot, but the political life expectancy of embattled Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) may depend on the outcome of a tight Los Angeles County legislative race where total campaign spending probably will top $1 million.
Under siege from the rebel Democratic “Gang of Five” for the last 10 months, Brown has targeted the 63rd Assembly District because he believes he has a good chance of picking up another supporter there to help protect him from being toppled from power.
In the June primary election, the Speaker’s allies contributed more than $150,000 to the campaign of Democrat Bob Epple, a Norwalk attorney and educator who won the party’s nomination by defeating Peter Ohanesian, a close friend of Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), a “gang” member.
Called a ‘Puppet’
Now Epple is running in the Nov. 8 election against Republican Assemblyman Wayne Grisham of Norwalk. The GOP incumbent charges that Epple is a “puppet” who would support Brown for Speaker and then follow Brown’s pro-liberal line in voting on bills--assertions that Epple disputes.
Although Epple and Grisham also talk about how they would crack down on crime and improve transportation, Brown’s speakership seems to be the biggest issue in the campaign.
Brown is so eager to get an ally in the seat that he has assigned a close friend, Assembly Majority Leader Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), to serve as Epple’s campaign coordinator. Roos described his duties as being the “eyes and ears . . . a trouble shooter . . . making sure the on-line people are executing properly.”
Another member of Brown’s inner circle, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), is a second Epple campaign adviser. Katz, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, also has given Epple almost $60,000 in campaign funds and services.
Won’t Tip Hand
The Democratic Assembly candidate, who continues to receive large chunks of campaign cash and assistance from top Brown lieutenants, was coy when asked if he will vote for Brown when the speakership fight continues in December. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve made no promises and no decisions. He (Brown) hasn’t asked me for my vote.
“And I will do whatever is best for my district when it comes to voting on bills.”
But Roos, when asked if Epple would be a Brown vote in the speakership fight, replied: “He’d better be.”
A former congressman and director of the Peace Corps in Kenya, Grisham scoffed at Epple’s statement that he would not be a Brown “puppet.”
“If you think my opponent won’t vote exactly the way Willie Brown wants him to vote, then I’ve got a bridge that I’d like to sell you,” he said. “Seventy percent of the people in my district don’t think or vote like Willie Brown. I promise I won’t vote for him or with him.”
Earlier this year, Brown turned back several attempts by a coalition of rebel Democrats and Republicans to oust him.
However, the bipartisan coalition was able to push through several tough law and order bills opposed by Brown, such as one authorizing wiretapping of suspected major drug dealers. The measure, which had been sidetracked for many years, subsequently was passed by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian.
Brown’s continuance in power largely depends on the political numbers game results following the Nov. 8 general election.
It takes 41 votes to elect the Speaker of the Assembly. There are 43 Democrats, 35 Republicans and two vacancies. Subtracting the dissident Democratic “Gang of Five,” this means Brown needs to pick up three new seats to join his 38 loyalists and protect his job when the 1989-90 session starts.
First elected to the Assembly in 1984, Grisham lost a 1987 bid for the state Senate. It was this loss in a special election to Sen. Cecil N. Green (D-Norwalk), then a Norwalk city councilman, that led Brown to believe Grisham was politically vulnerable. On paper, Grisham looked like a winner in 1987, but Green outhustled him with a concentrated grass-roots effort.
Big Crossover Vote
The blue-collar 63rd Assembly District is 57% Democratic and 35.5% Republican in voter registration but has a conservative bent and a reputation for crossover votes. It includes Artesia, Cerritos, Downey, Hawaiian Gardens, Santa Fe Springs, almost all of Norwalk and parts of Lakewood, south Whittier, east Whittier and Long Beach.
Grisham, who is receiving substantial financial help from the state Republican Party and fellow GOP lawmakers, won the primary election by defeating Dale Hardeman, a former aide who managed his losing Senate campaign.
Out on the stump, Epple charges that Grisham doesn’t work hard enough to represent the district.
For example, the Democratic challenger points out that the incumbent missed a 1987 Assembly floor vote on an emergency bill to aid victims of the Whittier earthquake. Grisham replies that he helped draft the measure and decided to attend a family reunion when it became clear that it would pass without much trouble.
Epple also argues that Grisham has a high absentee rate at committee hearings. The incumbent blames this on his ill-fated run for the Senate, which he said won’t happen again, and on “scheduling conflicts.”
For the most part, Grisham seems content to run on his record and experience. He cites as a top achievement his co-authorship of a law increasing penalties for the kidnaping and sexual assault of children.
The 63rd District campaign got a new issue earlier this week when Grisham and his aides began talking to reporters about Epple’s involvement in misdemeanor charges of public drunkenness and failure to make a report in connection with a 1970 auto accident.
An Epple spokesman said the Democratic candidate pleaded guilty, paid the appropriate fines “and learned a valuable lesson that turned his life around.”