Of course, as Betty Chu is running in the 32nd Congressional District, none of us living in Sierra Madre can vote for her. Which is unfortunate, because in some ways she is fighting for the same things that we are fighting for here. The rights of cities to defend themselves against the unchecked depredations of runaway redevelopment and its enablers in Sacramento and Washington DC being very much at the top of her list. This is now the sleeping giant of California politics, and Betty Chu knows that. If she can pull off an upset and win this race, it will be a tremendous victory for all of us.
Yesterday Betty held a press conference because she needed to draw a very careful distinction between herself and her opponent. This is how the Pasadena Star News reported it:
"Thirty-second Congressional District candidate Betty Chu at a press conference on Wednesday attempted to distance herself from an opponent who shares the last name ... Betty Chu sought to reassure voters she is not the same Chu who took money from a developer who was arrested on embezzlement charges ... Board of Equalization member Judy Chu accepted $1,000 from developers Jean Lang and John Leung, who were arrested two weeks ago on allegations that they embezzled $1 million from private investors."
Now where this PSN report lets us down is that it limits the Judy Chu/John Leung /Titan connection to that mere $1,000. Because, and as Betty pointed out to me in a phone call after the event, there is a whole lot more to it than that. Follow along.
Judy Chu is a former member of the California Assembly. And while she was a member there she sponsored two bills that had a direct bearing on the financing of the El Monte Transit Village project that has quickly become the reigning metaphor here for tainted redevelopment.
The first document we will examine comes from the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership. An organization that, as you will see if you follow the link, lists Bart Doyle as a member of its Board of Directors. The bill discussed here is AB 1167, which was sponsored by Judy Chu. This is how the SGVEP document summarizes it:
AB 1167 - Redevelopment: El Monte SUPPORT - "AB 1167 amends a portion of California redevelopment Law to enable the financing and development of the El Monte Transit Village, a very progressive transit-oriented mixed commercial and residential development project in the Downtown El Monte Area ... This bill would eliminate the July 2007 debt incurrence (sic) deadline, and allow flexibility for the City to carefully plan the project, and flexibility to issue and pay off debt as needed with a specific debt ceiling within the transit Village site, without altering existing pass-through obligations in the rest of the Downtown El Monte Project Area."
This blatant call for special privileges in the area of bond financing for an individual project was wisely shot down in Sacramento. But this didn't stop Judy Chu from taking a second run at seeing to John Leung's needs in this sensitive matter. A second bill, AB 2157, came to the attention of the State Assembly in February of 2006:
Summary: Allows the El Monte Redevelopment Agency to amend its redevelopment plan for the purposes of a transit oriented redevelopment project without making a finding of blight and without complying with any existing law provisions (except public notice requirements) with respect to amendments and time extensions. Specifically, this bill ... allows the City of El Monte Redevelopment Agency (RA), for the purposes of transit oriented redevelopment, to amend its redevelopment plan according to the following:
a) Without a finding of blight;
b) Extend the life of the project area indefinitely;
c) Remove the time limit on incurring debt.
d) Increase from $44 million to $65 million the amount of allowable bonded indebtedness for one or more transit oriented redevelopment projects.
e) Increases to $150 million the amount of tax increment allocated to the RA.
And this project specific funding boondoggle was shot down as well. And Judy Chu, after carrying an awful lot of water for John Leung and Titan's "Transit Village," then left the State Assembly and went on to her current position on the Board of Equalization. But that is not where this surreal story ends.
Another FOJL (Friend of John Leung) took Judy's place in the Assembly. His name is Mike Eng. Or, if you are among the better acquainted with the affairs of that side of the Valley, Judy Chu's husband. This from an article that appeared in The Mercury News:
"Though no charges have been filed against Leung and Lang, Board of Equalization Vice Chairwoman Judy Chu and Assemblyman Mike Eng - D - El Monte, are trying to keep their distance by returning campaign donations ... 'We do intend to give all of the funds back,' Eng said of his campaign committee."
Of course, it wasn't that long ago that Mike Eng, along with Judy Chu, were proud to call John Leung their very special friend. So special that Mike Eng, after he took his over wife's position in the California Assembly, reintroduced almost the exact same bill. The one that had already been shot down twice! This time it was called AB 20, and Eng boasts about it on his own website. Why? Because this time it passed.
Transit Oriented Development: This bill allows redevelopment agencies to amend a redevelopment plan to extend redevelopment financing time limits and debt limits to support infrastructure improvements of a transit oriented development in a redevelopment area.
(On edit: Apparently the information on Eng's site is dated, or he just doesn't give a damn. The redevelopment language was stripped from AB 20 at a later date, and it morphed into something called AB 1221, sponsored by Assemblyman Ma. And while it did pass, it was later vetoed by Arnold Schwartzenegger. So Titan never did get their pound of flesh.)
So why did this version make it through the Assembly and Senate? Eng - later Ma - took out the specific reference to the El Monte Transit Village and made this fast and loose method of redevelopment boondoggle financing available to all. And if it wasn't for Governor Schwartzenegger, it would actually have become law.
It would be great if the good citizens of Congressional District 32 were to recognize this for what it really is, unmistakable cronyism and the twisting of state law to suit the needs of a privileged special interest. And the very best way to do that would be to send Betty Chu to represent them in Washington DC. It would be an electoral upset that would galvanize this entire state and put venal politicians everywhere on notice that the voters will no longer stand for this kind of blatant disregard for the true wishes and needs of the taxpayers. And as bad as things are in California, we the people could really use a victory right now.
A victory for Betty Chu would be a victory for all of us living in the San Gabriel Valley. We need to do whatever we can to make this happen. It's our fight, too.
UPDATE: "Race for 32nd District not over yet" ... PSN article now up on their site. Judy Chu is hearing footsteps.