Judy Chu can trace the beginnings of her career as a San Gabriel Valley activist and political leader back to the early 1970s and her freshman year in college.
As the young math major, intent on a career in computer science, was crossing the UC Santa Barbara quad one day, someone thrust into her hand a flier about a new Asian American studies course. She decided to give it a try.
"It was like a light went off in my head," Chu recalled. She learned about the history of Asian immigrants and their children, the discrimination and stereotypes they endured and their contributions to American life and culture.
One of the guest speakers was Pat Sumi, a third-generation Japanese American whose activism included registering blacks to vote in Mississippi and Georgia and organizing protests against the Vietnam War.
"It was the very first time it occurred to me that an Asian American woman could be a leader," said Chu, who began volunteering with various causes, transferred to UCLA and gave up computers for clinical psychology.
On Tuesday, adding to a 24-year political career launched on a local school board, Chu became the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress. She won a special election -- with nearly 62% of the vote -- to succeed longtime ally Hilda Solis, now U.S. Labor secretary, in the 32nd Congressional District.
She won this election in much the same way she posted earlier victories -- expanding on her Asian base (about 13% of voters in the congressional district) to win support among Latinos (who make up almost half of the registered voters in the district), organized labor (a major element in the largely working-class district) and women. Her years on the Garvey School Board and the Monterey Park City Council and representing a local Assembly district made her a trusted household name among San Gabriel Valley political leaders, many of whom crossed party and ethnic lines to support her.
One is Republican Betty Couch, who said she found common ground -- and friendship -- with the unabashedly liberal Chu when they served together on the Monterey Park City Council.
"She does her homework, she listens, and she really cares about people," said Couch, who said she wishes only that Chu were "a little more frugal" when it comes to government spending.
Couch recalled balking at Chu's proposal for city-sponsored child care -- until Chu won her over by adding a service charge based on a family's ability to pay. "She found a way to get me to support something I was philosophically opposed to," Couch said.
Judy May Chu was born July 7, 1953, in Los Angeles, the second of four children of Judson Chu, a native Californian, and his wife, May, whom he brought from China under the War Brides Act. Judy Chu's paternal grandfather ran a Chinese restaurant in Watts, and the family lived near 62nd Street and Normandie Avenue in South Los Angeles until moving to the Bay Area when Judy was in junior high.
Her father worked as an electrical technician for Pacific Bell and her mother was a cannery worker and a member of the Teamsters.
It was while she was a student at UCLA that Chu met her future husband, attorney Mike Eng. The couple married in 1978. Chu, who holds a doctorate in psychology, continued teaching at Los Angeles City College, then at East Los Angeles College, and Eng practiced immigration law.
By the early 1980s, the couple had settled in Monterey Park, which was experiencing an influx of immigrants from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, sparking a backlash among some longtime residents who sought a ban on Chinese-language storefront signs. When a divided City Council voted in 1986 to support a resolution endorsing, among other things, English as the nation's official language, Chu, by then on the school board, and Eng helped form the Coalition for Harmony in Monterey Park.
"Judy and Mike were always trying to find ways to bring people together," said Jose Calderon, another member of CHAMP who is now an associate professor at Pitzer College in Claremont. They started "harmony days" to celebrate the city's various cultures, and they led a petition drive that moved the council to rescind its divisive resolution.
Chu was elected to the council in 1988 and, in 2001, won an Assembly seat after two unsuccessful attempts. When she ran for the state Board of Equalization after being termed out of the Assembly in 2006, her husband succeeded her to the 49th District seat.
Chu, who was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and be sworn in today, said she plans to come home every weekend. She said that she and Eng will continue their practice of once-weekly "date nights" of dinner out or a movie -- their way of coping with careers that put them in different cities.
Marilyn Calderon, who served on Chu's legislative staff in the Assembly and now works for the United Farm Workers, said her former boss always encouraged her employees to aim high and insisted they remember they were there to help people who needed them.
Calderon recounted a 2004 meeting in a sun-baked field in Shafter with farm workers and others trying to build support for Chu's proposed legislation to protect field hands from sometimes-fatal sunstroke. On the ride back to Los Angeles, Calderon said she was drained but Chu seemed energized.
"She kept talking about how to move forward, what should be included, what the strategy should be," Calderon said. "She's a hard, hard worker."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
* Born July 7, 1953, in Los Angeles
* Raised in South Los Angeles and the Bay Area
* Lives in Monterey Park
* B.A. in math, UCLA; PhD in psychology, California School of Professional Psychology
* Psychology teacher, Los Angeles City College, East Los Angeles College
* Garvey School Board, 1985-1988
* Monterey Park City Council, 1988-2001
* California Assembly, 49th District, 2001-2006
* State Board of Equalization, 2006-2009
* First Chinese American woman elected to Congress, July 14, 2009
* Married since 1978 to Mike Eng, attorney and California Assembly member
Source: Times reporting