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Epple Tops Maverick in 63rd Assembly District

June 09, 1988|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

Having vanquished a primary opponent who threatened the Assembly's Democratic leadership, Robert D. Epple can now turn his attention to unseating a Republican Assemblyman who threatens the Democrats' legislative majority.

With the help of massive support from Democratic legislators and the state party, Epple, an attorney and party activist from Norwalk, trounced Peter Ohanesian of Downey in Tuesday's Democratic primary in the 63rd Assembly District. Since the Southeast district will figure heavily in the 1990 reapportionment battle and GOP efforts to weaken the Democrats' hold on the Legislature, Epple can expect continued assistance from party regulars.

"It's just one step to win in November," Epple told a crowd of supporters who greeted the news of his 58% to 33% victory over Ohanesian with cheers, whistles and rhythmic clapping late Tuesday night. "I hope to have you all back. . . . It's going to be a long, tough road to knock Grisham out."

Republican Assemblyman Wayne Grisham of Norwalk, a two-term incumbent and former congressman, garnered 78% of the vote in the face of a weak, poorly financed challenge by one of his former aides, Dale Hardeman of Downey.

The winners in other Southeast legislative primaries were Republican Donald Knabe in the 33rd Senate District and Democratic Sen. Bill Greene of Los Angeles and Republican Johnnie G. Neely in the 27th Senate District. Janice Lynn Graham defeated Stan Caress in the Democratic primary in Republican William Campbell's 31st Senate District.

Ohanesian, the owner of a marketing firm who lost a primary bid for the same Assembly seat in 1984, blamed his defeat on the party mainstream's sweeping support of Epple.

"It makes it difficult when you're going against the establishment" said Ohanesian, who became a victim of the leadership struggle between Democratic Speaker Willie Brown and the so-called Gang of Five, a group of maverick Democratic Assemblymen who have joined with Republicans to push through legislation blocked by Brown.

Ohanesian was aligned with longtime friend and Gang of Five member Charles Calderon of Montebello long before the leadership battle erupted. Once in full force, the power struggle pushed an avalanche of endorsements and money to Epple, a Gang foe who has long worked in the party trenches for other candidates.

"I think it's the long arm of Willie Brown and the awesome amount of money they spent," Ohanesian said of his stinging loss. "I believe we got outspent tremendously," Ohanesian added, estimating that his campaign spent about $250,000. Epple listed more than $300,000 in contributions at the end of the last reporting period two weeks ago.

Backed by Labor

Ohanesian won the backing of two labor groups, about 30 local elected officials, and the five Gang members. Epple, meanwhile, rounded up the endorsements of the state Democratic Party, more than a dozen leading Assembly Democrats who support Brown, congressmen and about 20 labor groups. While Ohanesian, of Armenian descent, got money from Calderon and the Armenian community, Epple's campaign fund swelled with checks from Brown loyalists and labor organizations. The state party showered Democratic voters with more than $100,000 worth of political mailers on Epple's behalf.

Betting that the heavily blue-collar, mostly Democratic 63rd District did not like Brown's liberal politics, Ohanesian hammered away at the Brown theme, asserting that Epple is "owned lock, stock, and barrel" by Brown. Ohanesian contended that Epple would vote with Brown in thwarting legislation promoted by the Gang of Five, including campaign reforms, death penalty and insurance rate bills.

The strategy earned heated protests from Epple, who complained Ohanesian was waging a smear campaign. Epple, who had endorsed Ohanesian before jumping into the primary himself, vowed his support of several of the same proposals Ohanesian backed.

At a press conference in Sacramento Wednesday, Brown applauded Epple's victory.

"I have never seen such efforts made by Democrats in a primary to identify a particular Democratic party official, a particular Democratic officeholder, as some kind of a liability," Brown said. "The voters in that district rejected that. . . .

"They selected him (Epple) because he was obviously a local person, he was obviously a local officeholder, he was obviously a quality human being and he was obviously not in the pocket of anything or anybody."

In a barrage of skillfully planned and slickly packaged mailers, Epple repeatedly asserted that he had far more in common with the district's voters than did Ohanesian. "He's one of us," proclaimed a typical Epple brochure, depicting the 39-year-old Epple as a veteran and a devoted family man with a long list of community service. In contrast, Ohanesian, 32, is single, has never been in the armed forces, and hasn't joined nearly as many service clubs as has Epple.

"The district wants to elect somebody who's just like them," said Epple campaign worker Judy McMahon.

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