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Chu and Cedillo face off in race to replace former congresswoman Solis

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Next week's congressional election in the San Gabriel Valley is a test of the political strength of a longtime Asian-American politician in a majority Latino district. Board of Equalization Vice Chair Judy Chu faces State Senator Gil Cedillo in the race to replace Hilda Solis, who resigned the seat to become President Obama's labor secretary. Both are Democrats, and both call themselves cross-racial candidates. KPCC's Frank Stoltze takes a look at the two candidates for the rare open congressional seat.

Frank Stoltze: At an East L.A. Mexican restaurant, Gil Cedillo chats up voters.

[Gil Cedillo interacting with voters in Spanish]

Stoltze: Cedillo, who's 55 years old, has deep roots in the Latino communities of East L.A. After he chows down on huevos and frijoles, he recalls participating in an historic 1970 Chicano rally.

Gil Cedillo: My first political statement was to march against the war, and little did I realize that it was going to be one of the most seminal moments in the experience of Mexican-Americans in this country as they battled for their rights. And that was a seminal moment for me. It pushed me to get more involved.

Stoltze: Cedillo went on to become a labor union leader and state assemblyman and senator. He's best known for his persistent support of legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses. Critics call him "One Bill Gil." Cedillo is proud of his work; he points to a nearby photo.

Cedillo: In this restaurant, there's a photo up on the wall of Gray Davis at the signing of the drivers license bill. and I'm surrounded by Gray Davis and my friend Fabian Nunez. Big moment!

Stoltze: Under pressure from conservatives, the legislature repealed the bill. He's introduced it again, saying it's an issue of equal rights and highway safety.

The rights of Chinese-American immigrants loomed large in the early political life of Judy Chu. She did not march and shake her fist as Cedillo did. She was a 33-year-old community college psychology teacher when she helped lead a petition drive that overturned a local ordinance 22 years ago.

Judy Chu: What happened was in Monterey Park, old time residents scapegoated the new immigrants and wanted only English books in the library and only English signs in the city. The last straw was when they wanted only English to be spoken in the city and passed a resolution of that nature.

Stoltze: In the state legislature, Cedillo and Chu – a former member of the assembly – have cast hundreds of votes.

["Please take the vote..."]

Stoltze: Their records are similar. Both of them back President Obama's economic plan, government-sponsored health care and immigration reform that would provide a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Voters in the San Gabriel Valley have elected Chu nine times – to the school board, the city council, the Assembly, and the California Board of Equalization.

Judy Chu: There is vast difference in our experience in this district. Especially since Mr. Cedillo hasn't lived in this district and hasn't represented any portion of this district.

Stoltze: But more than half the voters in the district are Latino. That helps Cedillo, who says he knows the issue of the district well. About 20 percent are Asian-American – mostly Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino.

Chu knows she needs Latinos to win, and sitting below a sign that reads "si se puede," she brags about her support from L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and touts a tacit nod from Hilda Solis, who most recently held the seat.

Chu: I am most importantly endorsed by the family of Hilda Solis and the reason that that is so important is that they know Hilda the best and they've actually selected me to be the person to follow in her footsteps.

Stoltze: The Congressional Hispanic Caucus – eager to keep the seat in Latino hands – backs Cedillo. Like Chu, Cedillo's also won cross-racial backing.

Cedillo: I'm proud to have support from the first Chinese-American state senator, Leland Yee. I'm very pleased to have Van Tran speaking on my behalf to the Vietnamese community.

Stoltze: The powerful L.A. County Federation of Labor supports Chu, but some unions have defected to Cedillo in what likely will be a tight race. Twelve people are running, including another Chu – Monterey City Councilwoman Betty Chu – who could siphon votes from Judy Chu. Betty Chu reportedly is a distant cousin angry over Judy Chu's support of another candidate in a city council race.

Negative mailers have been flying back and forth in the campaign. Cedillo's aimed one at 26-year-old Manuel Pleitez, a candidate who could peel off Latino voters.

If no one wins a majority in Tuesday's election, the top candidates from each political party will face each other in July. But political observers say the top Democrat in the first round likely will end up winning the seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.