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ELECTIONS / ASSEMBLY : 56th District: Novice, Incumbent Battle for New Turf : Epple: The self-described conservative Democrat emphasizes consitiuent service. He cites local roots despite having to move to seek reelection.


SOUTHEAST AREA — When Assemblyman Bob Epple (D-Norwalk) called on a Lakewood voter the other afternoon on one of his regular rounds of precinct-walking, the woman of the house said there was something familiar about the name.

But it was Epple's mother that Teri Mastro had in mind. In a letter that arrived a few days earlier--complete with a potholder--Virginia (Epple) Lane recalled her son's days in the Boy Scouts and in the Army, his involvement with a variety of community organizations, and his accomplishments as an assemblyman.

"I was impressed," Mastro said.

And as he walks the streets of the new 56th Assembly District looking for votes, Epple is outspending his opponent and flooding the district with mail. Not only have voters gotten his mother's potholders, but advance letters saying Epple plans to call on them, letters of regret when he finds they aren't at home, invitations to campaign events and a broadside against Epple's Republican opponent, Bellflower businessman Phillip D. Hawkins. Also running in the district is businessman Richard Gard, a Libertarian.

Although Epple says he is confident of victory, he is taking no chances in the new district, which includes only about half of the territory of the district he represented before reapportionment of the Legislature.

After living in Norwalk most of his life, Epple moved to Cerritos to run for reelection, leading to a charge of carpetbagging. And his four years in office have prompted Hawkins to tar him with the sins of incumbency, including using taxpayer's money to boost himself and toadying to powerful Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

But in the long run, Epple believes his moderate brand of politics--he calls himself a conservative Democrat--and his record in office will pull off a win in a district that Republicans have targeted this year. Epple claims that the new boundaries, which excluded his old house by 25 feet, were deliberately drawn to exclude him.

"My interest and excitement is in helping people do things," said Epple, a friendly and articulate man of 43. "It means I have an office that feels the same way and we serve the district. When public officials call, we help them find answers. When the public calls, we help them find answers."

As a member of the education finance committee of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, Epple said he has been able to play a role in setting educational priorities in the face of shrinking dollars. For example, he said he supported a program aimed at preventing teacher burnout, although it did not survive the summer budget crisis.

Epple wrote legislation adding three years to the prison sentences of people convicted of selling drugs around schools, churches, child care centers and video arcades. He also got a bill passed aimed at eliminating worthless auto service warranties.

He was unsuccessful with a measure requiring insurance companies to justify denying life-sustaining treatment to terminally ill people. The measure, which was introduced on behalf of a Norwalk cancer patient, was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson. Epple also failed in an attempt to slash 167 attorneys from the state payroll to save money.

Some local elected officials give Epple high marks in working to protect schools and cities from budget cuts during the prolonged state budget stalemate.

"He was very vocal in Sacramento, always trying to see that city cuts would be a minimum. I feel he did that, said Artesia Mayor Mary Alyce Soares, adding that Epple "looks out for his district."

As he battles Hawkins, Epple finds the carpetbagging charge particularly galling--saying that his local roots are as real as those of Hawkins, who has lived in Bellflower and Cerritos for a total of 37 years.

Although Epple lived most of his life in Norwalk, he has been a member of the Bellflower Brethren Church for seven years and had his office in Bellflower when he was a private attorney before election to the Assembly in 1988. For seven years, he was a trustee of Cerritos College. He has belonged to two service clubs in the area and presently is a Cerritos Noon Lion.

"I'm not a stranger in the district," said Epple, who lives with his wife, Cheryl, and 10-year-old daughter, Nicole.

The assemblyman dismisses Hawkins' myriad charges of misdeeds in Sacramento contained in a glossy mailing to voters as either incorrect or a misunderstanding of how state government works.

For example, Epple says it is true that he spent $301,000 to operate his office in 1990, but says it was $27,000 below what had been budgeted. He defends sending $30,000 worth of state-paid mail to constituents: "If communicating with constituents is a crime and wrong, I'm guilty. I want people to know what I'm doing, where I am."

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