SACRAMENTO — Bob Epple is likely to be a marked man next year when he runs for reelection.
Last November, Epple barely defeated Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk) by 220 votes, one of the slimmest margins in any recent legislative race in Los Angeles County.
Because of the close contest, Republican political strategists say they are gearing up for a possible challenge next year to the rookie lawmaker from Norwalk, in Southeast's blue-collar 63rd Assembly District.
If the GOP is going to gain a majority in the Assembly, the party must win seats in such districts, where voters swing between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans, who are outnumbered 47-33 in the Assembly, say they hope to recruit former Cerritos Councilman Don Knabe to run against Epple.
Michael Galizio, chief of staff of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), acknowledged that when the GOP begins to look at Democrats to unseat, Epple is "a likely target."
Already, one community group in Epple's district has taken the unusual step of walking precincts to complain about his opposition to a ban on assault weapons. And some Latino activists privately are discussing whether to mount a challenge to Epple in the Democratic primary next June.
Not to be outflanked, Epple is preparing for battle.
He has reported raising about $85,000 this year for his reelection drive and hopes to attract as much as $50,000 more at a $499.95-per-person, blue-plate-special lunch in Sacramento Wednesday, just two days before the end of his first legislative session.
After nine months in the Capitol, reviews of Epple's performance have been mixed.
Even though Epple has kept a low profile that is common for rookie lawmakers, he has tackled at least two major issues.
He has sought legislation to reform school textbook purchases and to overhaul the way multibillion-dollar utility rate cases are decided. He also has sought--so far unsuccessfully--to win funds for a sports complex in Norwalk and a swimming pool in Downey.
Epple, 41, a lawyer who attends a weekly Christian fellowship for legislators, has won high marks for his ability to quickly analyze bills, as well as for punctuality, preparedness and a likeable, down-to-earth style. "He hasn't been here long enough to be cavalier about the job," said one legislative staffer. Epple also has emerged as a pro-labor Democrat, who joined most other Democrats to help Brown win an unprecedented fifth term as Assembly speaker.
In June, Common Cause, the self-styled citizens lobby, commended Epple and 11 other lawmakers for rejecting honorariums for speeches from special-interest groups. "I think the public perception of honorariums is that they are attempts to buy votes," Epple said in an interview earlier this month. He does not want to be perceived as someone "for sale," Epple said.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), who helped manage Epple's primary victory last year, said his friend's constituents don't want "some polished media-oriented politician. I think they want some guy who reminds them of somebody who they can have over for a barbecue."
Criticism in District
Back home, however, Epple has drawn fire, especially from some community groups and Latino activists, for his staunch opposition to a ban on assault weapons that was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian. Others say his stand on the gun issue is an example of Epple's failure to have his finger on the political pulse of his district, which spans working class, predominantly white suburbs and growing Latino neighborhoods. It includes Artesia, Cerritos, Downey, East Lakewood, Hawaiian Gardens, Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs.
One political consultant, who asked not to be identified, also cited Epple's failure to know that his mother, Virginia Epple Lane of Norwalk, had filed to run for the Cerritos Community College Board of Trustees in the November election. Epple acknowledged that he was caught off-guard by his mother's announcement this summer because he was vacationing in Hawaii. Epple, a former trustee at the college, minimized the criticism, cracking: "When was the last time you tried to keep track of your mother."
Epple added: "I would really worry if no one had any criticism of me and my positions and votes, because it would mean that I was an absolute nonentity in the Capitol."
Among 8 Democrats Opposed
The focus of the criticism revolves around Epple's objections to bills banning the sale of assault weapons--including a measure by Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), his Sacramento housemate. When Roos' bill to outlaw certain weapons first came to the floor in March, it was narrowly approved on a 41-38 vote, with Epple joining two other Southeast-area Democrats, Willard Murray Jr. of Paramount and Dave Elder of San Pedro, in opposing the legislation. They were among eight Democrats who voted against it.