SACRAMENTO — Two Democratic candidates in the 63rd Assembly District have protested the state Democratic Party's endorsement of one of their opponents in the June 7 primary.
Marshall Story of Cerritos and Peter Ohanesian of Downey say the state party's endorsement of Robert Epple of Cerritos last weekend was engineered by Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown of San Francisco through a last-minute change in party rules.
The dispute marks the opening round in the primary for the seat now held by Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk), who faces a GOP primary challenge. The 63rd District includes Cerritos, Downey, Norwalk, Hawaiian Gardens, Artesia and Santa Fe Springs.
Reading from a prepared statement at a Norwalk press conference Monday, Ohanesian said: "Willie Brown packed our Assembly District caucus after forcing a last-minute rules change that . . . allowed people who didn't even live in Los Angeles County to pick proxies who live in our community--as long as they were committed to his handpicked candidate, Bob Epple."
Ohanesian and Story also said they unsuccessfully had sought to have the party refrain from taking a position in their contest. A fourth candidate in the race is Humberto Lujan of Norwalk.
Dean Tipps, a spokesman for Brown, denied the assertions, saying Brown did not ask the party to change the rules: "These guys have been beating on Willie Brown. It seems that's the only issue they can think of in the campaign.
"What Mr. Ohanesian and Mr. Story are complaining about is that they didn't have the votes. . . . It sounds like sour grapes to me."
Epple said Brown had no role in the endorsement. "I feel (Ohanesian and Story) are being poor losers," Epple said.
Last month an appellate court cleared the way for the Democratic Party to support legislative candidates for the first time. Democrats made the endorsements last weekend at their annual convention in Palm Springs.
The impact on the campaign is unclear, but the party action will enable candidates to publicize the endorsement, receive help and possibly money from the party and, most important, use a cheaper bulk mailing rate available to political parties.
At the press briefing, Story complained that because of this advantage he will "have to raise three times as much money" as Epple "to run the same level of a race."
Heart of Dispute
At the convention, candidates were endorsed by Assembly district caucuses attended by party officials. At the heart of the dispute are party rules on whether people given a proxy by a delegate must vote in their own district caucus or in the caucus of the delegate who provided the proxy.
Rickie Santell, co-chair of the credentials committee, said her committee had initially determined that a person had to vote in the district of the delegate who gave them the proxy. But after much wrangling and two votes, she said, the committee reversed itself on Saturday and decided that the proxy must vote in the district in which he lives.
Santell said that is the traditional way in which the party has handled proxies. "It's not new. It's always been done this way," Santell said.
The 63rd Assembly District caucus voted for Epple, 16-10, just above the 60% required to receive the party nod. After the caucus vote, the full convention ratified the endorsement, Santell said.
Candidates Ohanesian and Story said six of Epple's votes were cast by delegates who live in the 63rd District but who were given proxies by delegates who live outside the district. One of those was acting State Treasurer Elizabeth Whitney, who acknowledged that she gave her proxy to Michael Galizio, Brown's chief of staff, for him to pass on to the Epple campaign.
"Galizio called and asked for the proxy," Whitney said. "People do that all the time."
Although Brown has publicly shied away from endorsing a candidate in the 63rd District, most members of his Assembly Democratic caucus support Epple. Among the reasons they privately cite for helping Epple is that Ohanesian is a longtime friend of Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Alhambra), one of five dissident Democrats who have challenged Brown's leadership.
In the neighboring 54th Assembly District, former Assemblyman Leon Ralph of Paramount captured the party endorsement over Willard Murray, an aide to Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton). They are battling for the right to oppose Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner (R-Lakewood) in the heavily Democratic district, which covers Bellflower, Compton, Lakewood, Paramount and parts of Long Beach, East Compton and Willowbrook.
Ralph described the endorsement as "a strong indication that I have support from people throughout the district. But Murray discounted the significance of the vote, saying he does not "think it will markedly affect the outcome of the June 7 election."
Staff writer Richard Holguin contributed to this story.