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Eu Breaks the Insiders' Mold as She Ponders Bid for Senate

March 23, 1987|JOHN BALZAR | Times Political Writer

She is the highest-ranking and longest-playing woman in California politics. And if you start with a clean sheet of paper, March Fong Eu's story comes out full of promise for her dream to become the first woman U.S. senator from California.

But among those who follow politics and are supposed to know these things, few believe what they see on this paper. Few are taking California's secretary of state all that seriously as she sniffs the early breezes in the 1988 Senate election.

Nowhere else in the political leadership of California is there such a strange gap between how someone looks and how they are seen.

"Just because I have great Havana seeds doesn't mean I can grow great Havana cigars," shrugs Democratic political consultant Joe Cerrell in dismissing Eu's potential.

But Eu's fans carry on impressively about how she has overpowered foes by bigger margins than anyone running for state office in her four statewide elections. And how, years ago when she represented Oakland in the Legislature, she viscerally connected to her public through populist campaigns to outlaw pay toilets and permit emergency phone booth calls without coins.

Storybook Rise

And then, her supporters demand, what of her storybook rise from the back of her parents' Chinese hand laundry in the San Joaquin Valley town of Oakdale to be a dental assistant, an Alameda County school board member, an assemblywoman and now the holder of high office in Sacramento and a mansion in Los Angeles? What makes a better political yarn than that?

As she approaches her 65th birthday, Eu says she has decided to try to prove the doubters wrong and enter the Democratic race for the U.S. Senate--for the seat now held by first-term Republican Pete Wilson, who is preparing to seek a second term.

This is only the most recent of occasions Eu has looked for advancement. At least five times since she became secretary of state in 1974, she has pondered whether to try for a higher office and then backed down. Given that record, there are doubts whether she will stay in the Senate race.

She has, however, gone further than before toward a serious candidacy. She has established a federal campaign committee, hired back her veteran 1974 campaign manager, Sandy Weiner, who also managed actor George Murphy's 1964 campaign for the U.S. Senate from California.

"She knows she can't wait any longer. As far as she's concerned, it's now or never," said Anthony Miller, her top deputy at the secretary of state's office.

Timing also favors Eu this election. Her 68.8% margin of victory in November (after previous margins of 60%, 63% and 61%) guarantees her position in Sacramento until 1990 even if she is defeated for the Senate in 1988.

Aftermath of Beating

A final factor that cannot be discounted in pushing her ahead is the psychological aftermath of the savage beating she endured Nov. 10. A mugger entered her Hancock Park-area mansion, clubbed her with the blunt edge of an ax and yanked her around the house by her hair--all for $300--while her husband was upstairs showering. The accused assailant awaits trial.

Like other traumatized victims, Eu emerged from those terrifying moments with a new appreciation for her mortality.

"I think anybody who had gone through the experience I've gone through does have somewhat of an energizing feeling in the sense, God, you've come so close to death, time is really very precious and very valuable, and you've got to make the most of it. I'm certain that enters into it," Eu said in a recent interview. "But that certainly wasn't the basic premise of my decision. I had made my decision early on."

If Eu has decided to enter, she has not, however, offered a rationale for voters to elect her to the Senate or for contributors to support her.

Think of what she could have said: I am an Asian woman from California, I've spent years traveling and lobbying for 21st - Century trade policies. Who better in the United States Senate could get things going in Washington and abroad?

Instead, she says there is no need to offer a rationale.

"What is biting me inside to make me want to became a senator? I think being a senator in the United States is one of the best ways I can serve my country," she said.

Strong Test Ahead

For the time being, this may be adequate. Her base of Asian support may not need to know more about her than that she wants help. But reaching beyond that group for broad financial support could be the strongest test Eu has faced in 30 years of electoral politics. Not only will she have to produce a compelling reason for someone to support her, she will have to convince doubters that she is up to such a demanding race, and she will have to overcome her deep dislike and reluctance to ask people for money.

She has never had to raise money anywhere near the scale of a $15-million Senate race, where federal election contributions are limited to increments of $1,000 for individuals and $5,000 for political action committees.

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