After six years in Sacramento, former Assemblyman Kansen Chu took the riskiest gamble of his political career: Leaving the Capitol in 2020 to run for county supervisor. It didn’t pay off; he was trounced by his opponent last year. Now he wants his old seat back.
Chu, 68, confirmed exclusively to San José Spotlight on Thursday that he’s running for his former seat, Assembly District 25. The district covers North San Jose, Santa Clara, Milpitas, Newark and parts of Fremont.
“I want to give the district a choice,” Chu said. “I decided to come back to work close to home because of my mom. She is in a better place now and I would like to go back to Sacramento to continue my work on public safety, mental health, transportation, housing, environmental and of course, education issues.”
Democratic socialist Alex Lee, 26, decisively won Chu’s seat in November, becoming the youngest Asian American and first openly bisexual legislator in state history. Lee is a former field representative to Assemblymember Evan Low and has no prior political experience.
Chu believes Lee represents a minority of the beliefs of the district, and criticized the freshman lawmaker for his lack of political experience, his inability to convince colleagues to back his bills and his push to defund the police.
“I don’t see much leadership from him,” Chu told San José Spotlight. “He doesn’t really have the life experience. He’s never held a steady job. And I haven’t seen much leadership in addressing quality of life.”
He added that Lee doesn’t chair any committees, a true badge of leadership in Chu’s eyes. Chu was quick to point out that he created and chaired the Assembly’s Hate Crimes Committee—a body he’s prioritizing should he land back in the state Legislature.
Lee however says it’s atypical for freshman assemblymembers like himself to chair committees.
“I think it’s unfortunate that he cannot let go—especially after community groups told him to resign after last year’s racist comments,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “In eight months in the Assembly, we’ve done more than Chu has in his six years. And we’re just getting started.”
Lee’s progressive ideas have yet to gain a foothold in sapphire-blue Sacramento: Three of his bills went down in flames in the spring. His effort to keep Zoom access to public meetings, which has faced resistance, is moving soon to the Senate floor. He’s an outlier in moderate District 25, but a rising star among progressive Democrats.
“Unless you’re the chair of a committee, you really don’t have much power,” Chu said. “Seldom does the same party committee member vote differently from the chair. That’s just the structure of Sacramento.”
Chu, a former San Jose councilman, served in the Assembly for six years before announcing he would not seek reelection, choosing instead to run for the open supervisor seat left by termed-out Dave Cortese, now a state senator. While Chu won the primary, he lost the runoff in November to now-Supervisor Otto Lee in a race marred by mudslinging.
Chu landed in hot water last year over comments he made telling a Chinese publication that Latino parents told him they don’t care about their kids’ education while attempting to explain his decision to abstain from voting on a measure to repeal the state’s ban on affirmative action. A coalition of Bay Area civil rights organizations demanded Chu’s resignation from the Assembly.
“South Bay residents knew his record and voted accordingly in the supervisor race,” Lee said.
Last August, a state watchdog complaint alleged Chu skirted campaign finance laws to get around contribution limits.
The veteran lawmaker denies all allegations.
Chu was appointed to the Berryessa Unified School District in May—a board he formerly served on from 2002 to 2007.
“Comebacks are hard,” said Terry Christensen, a retired San Jose State University political science professor. “Even though Kansen Chu has continued to be active—he’s on the school board, he’s visible in the community, he still has a popular base—Lee’s been really aggressive about putting forward policies. Sometimes too progressive to get very far in the Assembly, but constructive policies. He’s worked the district heavily.”
The Assembly primary is set for June 2022. Lee has already launched his bid for reelection.