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March Fong Eu dies, was California political trailblazer

The pioneering Asian-American politician, who was a longtime California secretary of state, was 95.

California Secretary of State March Fong Eu, left,

California Secretary of State March Fong Eu, left, with first lady Betty Ford in 1976. Photo Credit: AP

LOS ANGELES — March Fong Eu, who was five times elected as California’s secretary of state after coming to voter attention 30 years ago with her populist campaign to ban pay toilets from public buildings, has died at age 95.

Eu, who was the first woman to serve as California secretary of state and the first Chinese-American to hold a constitutional office in California, died Thursday after complications from surgery following a fall at her home in Irvine, said Caren Lagomarsino, Eu’s longtime spokeswoman.

“She was such an exemplary role model and an encouragement for women to break the glass ceiling,” Lagomarsino said.

After first serving four terms in the state Assembly from 1966 to 1974, Eu received the highest vote ever at that time for a statewide politician to become the state’s chief elections officer and keeper of business and archival records. She was unbeatable in the next four elections.

During her nearly 20-year tenure, Eu instituted voter registration by mail and got federal approval of legislation allowing voters to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies.

Eu technically became the state’s first female governor — if only for a day — in 1976, when all the other state officials in the line of succession were out of California.

In 1988, midway through her fourth term, Eu sought the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate, hoping to be the first woman to serve as a California senator. However, she withdrew because she did not wish to disclose the financial holdings of her wealthy second husband, Henry Eu, a Singapore businessman.

Four years later, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were elected the first two female California senators.

Toward the end of her fifth term as secretary of state, Eu resigned when President Bill Clinton named her ambassador to the Pacific nation of Micronesia, a post she held for two years until 1996.

Although she never again held public office, Eu could not keep away from politics after her ambassadorship. In 1998, she supported a Republican — her adopted son, Matt Fong — in his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Boxer. Matt Fong, who went on to become state treasurer, died of cancer in 2011.

Four years later, Eu announced plans to run once again herself — for her old secretary of state job. By then almost 80, Eu said she was prompted to jump back into politics because she was disturbed that the state still had punch-card voting equipment like that in Florida, equipment that had caused a constitutional crisis in the 2000 presidential election.

“These old systems are time bombs that periodically explode whenever there is a close election,” said Eu, whose election slogan was “No More Chad.” “It’s time to act in California before we become the next victim.”

Eu had a great advantage because of her name recognition, but she lost in the Democratic primary to Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley, who went on to defeat the Republican candidate, Keith Olberg.

Eu, a one-time dental hygienist, served on the Alameda County school board in the 1950s and became interested in politics while serving as president of the American Dental Hygienists Association.

Eu quickly made a name for herself by taking up the issue of coin-locked toilets, saying that forcing women to fumble for pocket change was discriminatory.

To make her point, she staged a publicity stunt in 1969 in which she bashed a toilet lock with a sledgehammer (and accidentally smashed the toilet also).

Fong was born March 29, 1922, in Oakdale, northeast of Modesto. She grew up in the back of a laundry in San Francisco.

Although she was a straight-A student, a high school counselor told her not to count on becoming a teacher as no one would hire her because she was Chinese.

“Much of my drive is based there,” she once said.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene at the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s at Mills College and a doctorate in education from Stanford University before running for the state Assembly in 1966.

Eu did not call herself a feminist, but she bristled at restrictions on women. She once staged a protest at an all-male club in Sacramento, first wrangling an invitation to lunch there and then informing television stations to come and watch her be thrown out.

“Even if I were chairman of a committee meeting there for luncheon, I would be excluded,” an indignant Eu told The Times.

The club later agreed to accept women members.

In 1986, Eu was mugged in her own home while her husband was upstairs, unaware that a burglar had entered their house in gated Fremont Place in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles. The burglar beat her with the blunt edge of an ax and dragged her around the house by her hair until she found $300 to give him. The man was later captured and sent to prison.

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