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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.
SENATE

Blood Thicker Than Politics for Fongs

Democratic luminary March Fong Eu is back on the stump at 76, working on behalf of her favorite Republican: son Matt.

October 21, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

March Fong Eu, mother of U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong, was Barbara Boxer before Barbara Boxer was Barbara Boxer: feisty, outspoken, liberal, a San Francisco Bay Area original.

A feminist pioneer, a give-'em-hell stump speaker, a tireless self-promoter and possessed of a passion for pleading with fellow Democrats not to let the Republicans take over.

So there is irony in Eu helping her Democrat-turned-Republican son in his bid to unseat Boxer. Eu sat out her son's losing run for controller in 1990, and his winning one for state treasurer in 1994 and for the GOP nomination for Senate last spring.

"I'm glad we finally got her out there after 3 1/2 elections," Fong jokes. "I worked for her campaigns for 25 cents an hour long enough."

At 76, she is a grande dame of the state Democratic Party, back on the stump, trying to help her son succeed where she failed: to become the first Chinese American outside Hawaii to go to the U.S. Senate.

Eu has helped his fund-raising efforts in the Chinese American community statewide by corralling her legions of friends and former supporters from 30-plus years in politics.

"I'm doing this for March," said former Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hom, who hosted a Fong fund-raiser in San Diego. "March and I have known each other forever."

In the Bay Area, where Boxer is strong, Eu helped raise her son's political profile, especially with the press. She has also spoken on his behalf to the Chinese-language media (she knows Chinese; he understands the language but does not speak it).

In the final stretch of the campaign, Eu is assisting in Fong's attempt to prove that he is not the scary ultraconservative that Boxer claims.

Eu tells reporters that her son is more moderate than he appeared in the Republican primary, where it pays to talk up your conservative views. Fong is banking that the message has credibility.

"She has strong bipartisan appeal," said Fong. "I hope that, as a Republican, I can use her reputation. As Democrats have told me, 'You know, your mom had this reputation of working with Republicans and all Californians. . . . The apple probably didn't fall far from the tree.' "

At a fund-raising dinner last week in Beverly Hills, Eu told a mostly Asian American audience that her son will help stop what she sees as the unfair investigations of Asian American political donors. The event was at the home of a longtime Eu supporter, former Beverly Hills Mayor Maxwell Salter.

"The Congress, the Senate, the Justice Department by way of the FBI--together and separately--have started to harass, intimidate and subpoena for interrogation Asian Americans who have made campaign contributions," Eu told the group.

Boxer says she is not annoyed that a fellow prominent Democrat is campaigning against her.

"She's his mother, she loves him and she should support him," Boxer said, adding a parting shot to the candidate: "You know, the most right-wing representatives are the ones who turn from Democrats."

Some of Boxer's supporters, who were once also March Fong Eu backers, suggest that the son is not the political powerhouse the mother was.

"I've known Matt Fong since he was young," state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) told a Boxer rally in the Crenshaw district. "I knew his mother well. But it's Barbara Boxer who deserves to go to the U.S. Senate."

Art Torres, Democratic Party state chairman and a former state senator, frequently tells audiences that he first met Matt Fong when Fong was a teenager tagging along with his mother in the corridors of power.

"I know Matt Fong very well," Torres said. "I saw him grow up in Sacramento. I know Matt Fong, and he's no Barbara Boxer."

Fong thinks the Boxerites are wounded by his mother's decision to join the fray.

"It must drive Barbara Boxer crazy to have the state's most popular Democrat, my mother, out campaigning for me," Fong says frequently during campaign stops. "She's my secret weapon."

Leaving aside the issue of whether filial loyalty has caused Fong to overstate his mother's popularity, it bears noting that March Fong Eu was never a secret anything.

She represented Oakland in the Assembly from 1966 to 1974 and gained fame as a dedicated foe of pay toilets (she took a sledgehammer to one on the capital steps). In the era of Gov. Ronald Reagan, March Fong was the stuff of headlines.

Beginning in 1974, she was elected California secretary of state five times. In 1988, she ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, a campaign managed by her son.

After resigning as secretary of state in 1994, she served as U.S. ambassador to Micronesia until 1996. Now, she and her second husband, multimillionaire Henry Eu, split their time between California and his native Singapore.

When his parents divorced while he was in high school, Fong opted to live with his father, Chester Fong, now a retired dentist and colonel in the Air Force Reserves. But he continued to work in his mother's campaigns.

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