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63rd Assembly District Race Is Still Down to Wire

Times Staff Writer

In a large yellow room at the county registrar-recorder’s office in the City of Commerce, campaign workers for Assemblyman Wayne Grisham and Democratic challenger Robert D. Epple can be seen occasionally haggling over whether an absentee ballot is valid.

Each vote is vital because, with more than 93,000 counted, Grisham holds a nine-vote lead in the race for the 63rd Assembly District seat, one that likely will go down as one of the closest Assembly contests in the state’s history. Just last Wednesday, the day after the election, Epple was in Sacramento celebrating an apparent 87-vote victory with Democratic Assembly leaders.

On Tuesday, his campaign manager was sitting in the office lounge as dozens of election workers checked, counted and verified ballots and signatures in the room next door.

“It will be a race that will be talked about for years to come as an example of the saying ‘every vote counts,’ ” said Epple’s campaign manager, Dan Eaton.

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More than 100,000 absentee, write-in and other ballots countywide are expected to be tallied during the canvass of the election, which officials hope will be certified by Nov. 29. When the first canvass update was issued Monday, the Norwalk Republican had 46,929 votes, while Epple had 46,920 votes. Election officials did not know how many of the remaining ballots are from the 63rd District.

District Territory

The 63rd District includes Artesia, Cerritos, Downey, Hawaiian Gardens, Santa Fe Springs, almost all of Norwalk and parts of Lakewood, unincorporated Whittier and Long Beach. Registration for the district is 56.7% Democratic and 35.8% Republican, but Republicans historically have been able to find ample cross-over votes.

Like Eaton, Grisham campaign manager Tony Russo has maintained an almost-constant vigil at the registrar-recorder’s office since the canvass began last Thursday. Other workers have accompanied the two campaign generals to help them keep an eye on the count.

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The way Russo figures it, Grisham will continue to pick up absentee votes, as he has since the canvass began.

“I really expect by the end of Thursday we’ll be up by about 250 votes,” said Russo.

For his part, Eaton said he believes that Epple will win but he said it is impossible to make an accurate prediction.

“It’s a horse race,” Eaton said. “While all of us can go through our statistical analysis, our emotional ups and downs, this is an exception to the rule of being able to get a handle on it.”

Grisham, who at 65 is finishing his second term in the Assembly, spent about an hour observing the counting last Friday. Epple, a 39-year-old lawyer and a member of the Cerritos College Board of Trustees, has stayed away, Eaton said. Russo said the two sides have haggled over about 15 to 20 questionable ballots.

Neither Grisham nor Epple returned numerous calls Tuesday.

Russo said the assemblyman could do little before the election results are finalized.

“Things are in flux,” Russo said. “It’s hard to prepare for the next legislative session.”

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Epple had taken a couple days off after the election to be with his family, Eaton said. The Democrat is busying himself “thinking about the legislation he’d like to do, trying to keep the anxiety down.”

The Grisham campaign headquarters, a storefront in a Norwalk shopping center, was closed Monday night and election materials were moved to Russo’s home, the campaign manager said.

The Epple campaign will probably keep its campaign headquarters--a former Norwalk real estate office--until after the race is decided, Eaton said.

Eaton and Russo both said they may call for a recount depending on the margin of victory.

Hoped for Epple Victory

The 63rd District race drew strong attention from Democratic and Republican leaders who funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the two candidates to strengthen their ranks in the Legislature in anticipation of the 1990 reapportionment.

In addition, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) had hoped for an Epple victory to help him retain his powerful post. But Democrats now say Brown’s speakership is safe regardless of what happens in the 63rd.

If Grisham wins, the Democrats would still enjoy a 45-34 margin. Without the five votes of dissident Democrats known as the Gang of Five, Brown would have 40 votes. There is one vacancy in the Assembly because of the election of Democrat Curtis R. Tucker of Inglewood, who died after winning his party’s nomination in June. A special election will be held to fill Tucker’s seat.

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Brown could not be reached for comment. But Assembly Majority Leader Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) said only 40 votes are needed because that represents a majority of the 79 occupied seats in the lower house.

“We don’t expect the dynamic to change at all,” Roos said.

Balance Is Unclear

But new Assembly Republican Leader Ross Johnson of La Habra said through a spokeswoman that the number of votes required is unclear.

“Assemblyman Johnson feels it’s 41,” spokeswoman Anne Richards said. “However, he is researching it.”

No matter which way the contest goes, Eaton said, it probably will rival the 1980 race for the Assembly’s 26th District seat.

In that race, Assemblyman Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton) defeated his GOP rival by 35 votes.

The Epple campaign used a barrage of mailings to portray Grisham as an ineffective, absentee legislator who missed too many of his committee votes.

Grisham fought back by alleging that Epple would be a puppet of Speaker Brown.

Two days after the election, Grisham and Epple partisans found themselves forced together by the canvass.

Eaton said relations were cool at first, but as days passed feelings warmed.

“Over the last several days everyone has been friendly,” Eaton said.

Times staff writer James M. Gomez contributed to this story.


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