It is not unusual for the children of immigrants to seek careers in public service as adults. And it is not out of the ordinary for lawyers to segue into the political arena.
State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey), whose 28th Senate District covers Mar Vista, Westchester, Playa del Rey and the South Bay, has ventured down both of those paths, which has led him to the state Legislature in one of the most influential states in the nation.
As the son of immigrants from Taiwan, Lieu grew up in Cleveland, OH, where as a child he sold flowers in his family’s store. He graduated from Stanford University in 1991 and while applying to the prestigious Georgetown University’s Law Center, Lieu began to contemplate how the law could be a lever in making people’s lives better.
“I saw the law as a conduit to create change and I wanted to help fix things,” the senator explained recently in his Redondo Beach office. “To me, politics is an extension of that.”
One of the senator’s political mentors was George Nakano, the influential former South Bay officeholder and a stalwart political figure in the Asian-American community. Like Nakano, Lieu cut his teeth on local government in his initial sojourn into politics, winning a seat on the Torrance City Council as his mentor did years earlier.
“I would not be in politics without his help,” Lieu said. “He understood his district very well.”
Currently, Lieu holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s office of the United States Air Force Reserves.
After graduating magna cum laude from Georgetown law school, Lieu began clerking for the late Ninth Circuit Appeals Court Judge Thomas Tang, who was the first Chinese-American jurist appointed to the federal judiciary.
A few years after his election to the Torrance council, Lieu’s friend, Assemblyman Mike Gordon (D-El Segundo), died suddenly of a brain tumor. Lieu was encouraged to enter the special election to replace Gordon in the 53rd Assembly District and won overwhelmingly.
“He was a wonderful mayor and he was off to a great start in the Assembly, and then all of a sudden, he passed away,” Lieu, who was Gordon’s campaign manager, recalled.
After serving five years in the Assembly, Lieu was forced out by term limits and ran for attorney general, a race eventually won by Democrat Kamala Harris.
Tragedy struck again when Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach) died Oct. 20 from complications of a stomach clot. Shortly thereafter, Lieu decided to run for his old friend’s 28th Senate District seat. He won going away in a Feb. 19 special election.
“Sen. Oropeza did a lot for California. Her many progressive bills on the environment, health care and pollution will have a lasting effect on all Californians,” he said.
Lieu also said he wanted to continue much of Oropeza’s work on transportation regarding the Metro Green Line extension to Los Angeles International Airport and protecting the Ballona Wetlands.
Friends of the Ballona Wetlands Executive Director Lisa Fimiani said Lieu has been an advocate for the environment.
“He has been a very loyal friend to us,” Fimiani said. “We have a good relationship with Ted and that is very important in being able to communicate our needs.”
The senator said having a background in local government provided him with an important learning ground to work with colleagues with whom one might have philosophical differences.
“There’s no such thing as a Republican or Democratic street, or a Republican or Democratic pothole,” Lieu quipped. “It helped me to understand the importance of local government, because far more people come in contact with their local government than with their state government.
“It was also helpful going through a legislative process,” the senator added. “That helped a lot when I got to Sacramento.”
Lieu has been appointed to the chair of three significant committees in the state Senate: Labor and Industrial Relations, Appropriations, as well as Veterans and Constitutional elections.
“This is a very historic time for labor issues,” the senator said.
Two months into his term, Lieu has sponsored a bill that has garnered statewide attention. Senate Bill 747 would prohibit youths under age 18 from using indoor tanning booths. The Senate business policy committee approved it May 3.
One of Lieu’s bills that he is most proud of that became state law during his time in the Assembly is Assembly Bill 4x 27, known as the California Foreclosure Prevention Act. The bill is a first in state government, and Lieu feels that it has helped California homeowners who were ravaged by the mortgage crisis in 2008 that helped ignite a nationwide recession.
“We are the first state in the nation to require all lenders to run a loan modification program for homeowners who need help or have a 90-day foreclosure moratorium placed on them,” Lieu said.
The senator said last year, the nation’s foreclosure rate increased by 2 percent, while California’s dropped by 14 percent. “We still have too many foreclosures, but we are trending in the right direction,” he noted.
The Center for Responsible Lending, an organization that describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute whose mission is to eliminate predatory lending, believes Lieu’s bill was instrumental in shining a light on unscrupulous lending practices in California.
“The bill was a good first step and it certainly sent a message that we need to be able to stem the tide of mortgage foreclosures,” Ginna Green, the center’s communications manager, told The Argonaut.
She also said Lieu is a legislator who has a history of seeking the best possible solutions for his constituents. “Ted is someone who has always had protecting consumers at the top of his list,” Green said. But she added that it was too early to tell if California homeowners will reap long-term gains from the state law.
“There is still a question about how many homeowners have benefited from the bill,” she said. “There are too many people looking for loan modification and not enough on the services side to follow the law.
“(AB 4x 27) was a very good first step, but we need to look at all aspects of the mortgage foreclosure problem,” Green reiterated.
The senator says when he introduces legislation that at first blush appears to be a good bill but upon reflection is not as sound as he first believed, he is not shy about taking the proposal off the table. That was the case with a bill involving hotel union employees.
Lieu recently rescinded Senate Bill 912, legislation that would have mandated that a hotel housekeeping worker shall not be required to clean a hotel room in less than 40 minutes on average.
“I talked to a lot of different stakeholders and came to the conclusion that the bill, as it was written would not be practical,” Lieu explained.
Making California a place where companies want to come is among the issues he is most focused on, Lieu said. “Attracting good-paying jobs to the South Bay and the Westside are among my highest priorities,” he said.
“If we emphasize our competitive advantages in tourism, technology, aerospace and our ports, in the sectors where we have these advantages, we will be able to create jobs.”
Lieu said the Legislature’s recent move to close half of the $26 million budget deficit was one of the first bits of good news out of Sacramento since he took office in late February. “That was a significant first step, and we did it quite early in the budget process,” he noted.
The senator said being constrained by a two-thirds mandate in order to pass a budget is extremely frustrating, given the fact that two or three members of the opposition party can delay the passage of the state budget for months.
“Imagine if Washington, D.C. had to get a two-thirds vote on the budget every year,” Lieu said. “It would not function. It is a wonder to me that we can function in California with this two-thirds requirement.”
Like many officeholders, Lieu says the time spent away from his wife and two young sons is the most difficult aspect of his job as a state legislator.
“I love my job, but I hate being away from my family,” said Lieu, whose family includes wife Betty and sons Brennan, 8, and Austin, 5.
Despite the difficulties in governing, Lieu still holds a sunny forecast for the state.
“I know that while I’m still in the (state) Senate, California is going to turn around and once again be the Golden State that we’ve all dreamed of,” he said.