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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS -- 32nd Congressional District

Candidates for San Gabriel Valley seat aren't backing down

As favored Democrat Judy Chu downsizes her headquarters, Republican Betty Tom Chu for the first time opens a campaign office and Libertarian Christopher M. Agrella touts himself as 'fresh blood.'

June 22, 2009|Jean Merl

In the final weeks before the special election to fill the San Gabriel Valley-based 32nd Congressional District seat, Judy Chu, the heavily favored Democrat, is confident enough to have moved into smaller campaign headquarters.

Her Republican opponent and cousin by marriage, Betty Tom Chu, determined to make a strong bid despite long odds, has opened a campaign office for the first time since entering the race April 6. And the Libertarian in the three-way runoff, Christopher M. "Chris the Carpenter" Agrella, said he is still managing his shoestring campaign from a storage shed.

A spokesman for Judy Chu, 55, a member of the state Board of Equalization, said she no longer needed the large headquarters that hummed with activity during last month's hotly contested special primary that she won over her closest competitor, Democratic state Sen. Gil Cedillo.

Twelve candidates had flooded the May 19 ballot to replace Hilda Solis, the El Monte Democrat who gave up the seat to become U.S. Labor secretary.

Betty Chu, 72, a Monterey Park councilwoman, banker and lawyer, signaled with the opening of her campaign headquarters, after besting two others for the GOP nomination, that she is not conceding the race. Agrella, 55, who won a little more than 1% of the primary vote, seems to relish his outsider, underdog status. "You can vote for the person you want, not a party," he said.

Under the rules governing California's special elections, voters were allowed to choose among all the candidates, regardless of party affiliation. Because no candidate won a majority in the special primary, the contest then shifted to a July 14 runoff among the top vote-getters in each party that fielded a candidate.

Because the district is strongly Democratic, the "real" contest took place in the primary, political experts say. They believe that Judy Chu's election is now all but certain under a system in which most of California's legislative and congressional districts were drawn by state officeholders to protect incumbents and favor one major party.

Together, the eight Democrats on the open primary ballot received more than 73% of the vote, with almost 32% of the total going to Judy Chu and 23% to Cedillo. The three Republicans got about 25% of the vote, including more than 10% for Betty Chu.

"It's over now," Jaime A. Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., said after the primary.

Those kinds of statements irritate Agrella and Betty Chu, who believe that they can overcome the district's Democratic edge. As of May 4, the most recent tally by the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder, 52% of the district's registered voters were Democrats, about 22% were Republicans and 21% were unaffiliated with any party. The balance belonged to other parties.

"Why on Earth would you want to take our failed state policies and those policymakers and send them to Washington, D.C.?" Agrella asks on his campaign website.

In an interview, Agrella, who proposes repealing the income tax, requiring a balanced federal budget and establishing a "guest worker" program for immigrants, said he would turn down half his congressman's salary and would bring new ideas to Washington.

"I'm fresh blood," he said.

Betty Chu is betting that voters will like her experience.

"I believe my platform has broad appeal," she said. A longtime Democrat, she said she switched to the Republican Party last year after deciding that her political views fit better with the GOP. She does not support President Obama's economic stimulus plan, calling it ineffective and wasteful of taxpayer dollars.

As "the only candidate who has the real-life experience of being an attorney, bank founder and elected official," Chu promised to "hold the line on taxes and ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely."

Born in San Diego, she said, she worked in the fields as a child with her parents and as an adult broke many barriers, including becoming the first female Chinese American lawyer in Southern California.

Chu financed her primary campaign with a $25,000 loan to herself but said she is raising money for the runoff. She has enlisted attorney Robert M. Kojima, a longtime family friend, as her volunteer campaign advisor.

Judy Chu, who put together a multiethnic coalition with the help of organized labor to win the primary, described the runoff campaign as "a calmer situation. But I'm not taking it for granted -- I'm working very hard."

Chu said she spends much of her campaign time doing fundraising and phoning voters. She raised nearly $1 million in the primary, and EMILY'S List, a national organization that supports pro-choice, Democratic female candidates, spent approximately $17,000 independently on her behalf.

She said she is concentrating on "addressing the economic crisis" and on proposing ways to bring jobs back to the strongly working-class district.

"People have a great deal of anxiety about their futures," said Chu, who added that she supported the Obama administration's economic policies and efforts to see that all Americans have access to health insurance.

"There are so many different initiatives going on, and I want to be a part of that," Chu said.

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jean.merl@latimes.com

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