Chu’s Quiet Rise in California Politics Speaks Volumes

Posted May 22, 2009 at 5:31pm

Democrat Judy Chu has never been the loudest or most bombastic voice in the room. In fact, her colleagues have often wondered whether her reserved, introverted temperament might prevent her from succeeding as a high-profile public official.

But with quiet determination, Chu has managed to trudge her way up through the ranks of California’s political system. She will reach a new pinnacle on July 14, when the vice chairwoman of the State Board of Equalization is heavily favored to win the special election to succeed now-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in the House.

After her solid win over other Democrats in last week’s all-party primary, Chu has already begun sizing up her new set of challenges — and wondering what the view of her East Los Angeles district might look like from a Capitol office 3,000 miles away.

Chu said her top legislative priorities are unemployment, education and transportation. Once elected, she will immediately seek stimulus funds for several shovel-ready transportation projects that she says will create 30,000 jobs and take thousands of cars off the road.

Chu is known for this kind of unhesitating, levelheaded specificity. She said this quality might have been what helped her last Tuesday to beat her closest rival, state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D), who was favored early on because of the 32nd district’s overwhelming Hispanic majority.

“There was one lady who called me a couple days ago, telling me she was so confused about all the mailers,— Chu said in an interview last week. “She said, I started sorting them into two piles, one for you and one for Cedillo. I voted for you because all of yours listed factual information from objective sources.’—

Chu’s husband, California Assemblyman Mike Eng (D), credits the victory to a borderline obsessive sense of commitment.

“I think she averaged about two hours of sleep a night,— he laughed. “If she’s given a goal, she will literally not sleep until she’s done all she can do. And her goal was to get elected.—

But Chu’s determination has not always brought victory. After serving on the Monterey Park City Council for six years, Chu lost a bid for a state Assembly seat in 1994 and again in 1998. They were tough losses, she said, but Chu was finally elected to a San Gabriel Valley Assembly seat in 2001, with some help from the same woman who would provide her with the Congressional opportunity eight years later — Solis.

“A big part of [the win] was the fact that Hilda Solis endorsed me,— Chu said of the 2001 race. “She had just become a Congresswoman herself and had done a really difficult campaign where she went against against the tide. She overcame the old boys’ club.—

When she was term-limited out of office in 2006, Chu successfully ran for a seat on the California State Board of Equalization. There she earned respect and grew her popularity, even among colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

“As one of the two Republicans on this board, I can say she listened very often,— said Bill Leonard, one of Chu’s colleagues. “She really made an effort to hear the arguments on both sides and sometimes voted with Republicans.—

In July, Chu will face Monterey Park Councilwoman Betty Chu (R) on the ballot, certainly a confusing circumstance for voters. Still, Judy Chu is heavily favored to hold the staunchly Democratic seat.

When she arrives in Washington, D.C., Chu is interested in seats on either the Ways and Means or Appropriations committees, though she admits the exclusive panels are wishful thinking for a newcomer.

Before entering politics, Chu taught psychology at East Los Angeles Community College for 13 years. She has a degree in math from the University of California-Los Angeles and a doctorate in psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology.

Her first elected office was serving as a member of the Garvey School District Board from 1985 until her election to the Monterey Park City Council in 1988.

Ultimately, Eng said, the Congressional race is a culminating experience — a contest that she’s been waiting to win for years.

“This is a job she has been preparing for all her life,— Eng said. “Judy is so qualified. All the positions she has encountered — I think they have all prepared her for this moment.—