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Two Chus among candidates for congressional seat

Democrat Judy Chu, considered the favorite, and Republican Betty Chu will vie in a San Gabriel Valley runoff with Libertarian Christopher Agrella.

May 21, 2009|Carla Hall

What's in a name? Just about everything, it turns out, in the 32nd Congressional District.

Democrat Judy Chu and Republican Betty Chu, along with Libertarian Christopher M. Agrella, rose out of a field of 12 in Tuesday's election to advance to a July runoff. Judy Chu's campaign consultant, Parke Skelton, calls it "the Chu-Chu runoff."

Judy, who outpolled Democratic state Sen. Gil Cedillo and six other party members, is considered the heavy favorite, given the district's strong Democratic tilt.

The two women share a last name, a Chinese American heritage, extensive professional accomplishment and even a family connection. Betty is married to Judy's first cousin. But from there, all political and personal paths diverge.

The race, peppered with harsh fliers and accusations that one Chu (Betty) was trying to confuse voters into thinking she was the better-known Chu (Judy), featured a frostiness that makes the upcoming runoff seem like a surreal family feud.

"They're not friendly," said Skelton. "Even less so now."

In fact, both women say they don't know each other well. Judy, 55, who holds a doctorate in psychology, has been involved in politics for 23 years in the San Gabriel Valley -- including the Monterey Park City Council and the state Assembly -- and is currently vice chairwoman of the State Board of Equalization. Betty was just elected to her second term on the Monterey Park council but spent her professional life practicing government law and helping found two banks.

She says she was the first female Chinese lawyer in Southern California when she passed the bar in 1962. She is 72 but doesn't like to talk about her age. "I don't believe in racism, sexism or ageism -- and I went through all three of them," she said.

"First, let me say, I don't have a problem with her," said Judy. "And I don't know her very well."

Betty met her husband, a civil engineer, in college. They lived in Monterey Park years before Judy and her husband, Mike Eng, a state assemblyman moved there 24 years ago.

"I don't know what it is," said Betty. "To tell you the truth, I sensed her animosity years before."

When Betty first ran for City Council in 2003, she said, Judy confronted her at a Christmas function that then-Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) was holding and told Betty to stop saying they were related. "She is correct that she and I are not related by blood," said Betty.

"Let's put it this way -- my focus on that race was my two endorsed candidates," said Judy of the race that involved three council seats. "She was telling everybody that I was related to her."

But everything was ratcheted up in this last race. Betty said she got into the contest after taking a look at the perceived front-runners -- Cedillo and Judy -- and concluding, "I did not want them to represent me in Washington."

The woman identified as Betty Tom Chu on the Monterey Park city website condensed her name on the ballot to Betty Chu -- an attempt to confuse voters, according to Skelton. Betty insists she ran as Betty Tom Chu only one time -- to distinguish herself from "a woman down the street from me named Betty Chu."

Furthermore, said Skelton, the characters for Betty Chu's and Judy Chu's Chinese names are similar. Monterey Park has large numbers of Chinese American voters, many of whom use ballots printed in Chinese. "Betty Tom Chu has always had characters that don't look like Judy Chu's characters. She changed her name characters," said Skelton.

Not so, contends Betty, whose Chinese name means "Beautiful Born in America."

"Believe me, my name has been around a lot longer than hers. I was born with that name," Betty said. Judy Chu's Chinese name means "Beautiful Heart."

"We also had to focus on party," Skelton said. "Vote for the one of the beautiful whatevers who's the Democrat."

But the names weren't the only thing. Judy chafed at the mailer that Betty sent out titled "How to Spot a Loser," which featured a photo of Judy with suspicious-looking spots on her face.

"Well, I wouldn't draw moles on people's faces," said Judy of her opponent.

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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