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Monday, June 7, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Top Prosecutor Is `On Mission In Life' -- What Drives Her Is Need To Serve

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Mary Yu is regarded as one of the most intelligent attorneys in the King County Prosecutor's Office.

She works 12-hour days - and frequently takes her work home with her. She makes herself available to her "clients" at a moment's whim. She's energetic and tough. And she spends an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to improve operational procedures for herself and others on the job.

But those are not the only reasons King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng tapped her earlier this year to be his deputy chief of staff, a promotion that instantly made her one of the most influential attorneys at a place where many talented legal minds converge.

"I have had the opportunity to work with the best and brightest people in law over the last 20 years in this office," Maleng said. "Many of them have gone on to become Superior and District Court judges.

"But if you were to ask me for a short list (of the most talented and capable), Mary would be on any list that I would give you. She is one of the most remarkable persons that I have ever met."

So who is Mary Yu? Who is this attorney who has risen from the civil division at the prosecutor's office to deputy chief of staff in just five years, and whose rise has made her the highest-ranking woman and minority ever in administration at the prosecutor's office?

She was born in Chicago and raised by first-generation immigrant parents - her mother is Mexican, her father is Chinese. She became interested in religion and eventually received bachelor's and master's degrees in theology. She earned her law degree from the University of Notre Dame.

"I knew early on that I wanted to be of service and to be helpful to young people, so that's why I sought religious training," Yu, 41, said during an interview in her office at the prosecutor's office.

For 10 years she worked for the Catholic archbishop of Chicago, as director of the Peace and Justice Office. In that role, she helped the church develop policy on poverty and social justice, while also working directly with some of the most impoverished citizens of the Chicago community.

"It was a wonderful and great experience," said Yu, who hopes to help her co-workers understand that while it is necessary to punish wrongdoers, it also necessary for justice to be distilled fairly and with compassion.

"To dehumanize (wrongdoers or opposition) would be a terrible thing," Yu said. "It would be a terrible breakdown in our system."

King County Executive Ron Sims points to Yu's family and religious background as primary reasons for her effectiveness, saying she carries her history with her "magnificently."

"Mary Yu is on a mission in life, and she seems determined to do all the positive things she can do to serve the community," Sims said. "She has a high sense of integrity and is very strong on the issue of civil rights . . . and she has really begun to reshape" operational procedures at the prosecutor's office.

Superior Court Presiding Judge Bobbe Bridge echoed Sims' praise.

"She is passionate about what she does, and about doing the right thing. She never lets anyone give up when she knows the cause is right. I depend upon her a lot . . . to give me common-sense solutions to problems."

Sims admits that at one time he sought to steal Yu away from Maleng and the prosecutor's office.

"I want to succeed in my job and so I'm always looking for talented people," Sims said. "And I realized she was just an immense talent - someone who could help make me succeed - and I aggressively recruited her."

But her loyalty and commitment kept Sims from winning her: "She stayed with Norm and is helping him put together a fine staff."

But he doubts Maleng will be able to hang onto her for long.

"He'll have her for awhile, but not for too long," Sims said. "The cream rises to the top and Mary Yu is special."

Prior to her appointment this year as deputy chief of staff, where Maleng said her primary focus will be domestic violence and juvenile issues, Yu worked in the civil division of the prosecutor's office, handling labor and employment issues.

It was during that stint that Sheryl Whitney, director of information services for King County, met and worked with Yu.

"What I've come to know and appreciate about Mary is that her competence surpasses almost anyone else that I have worked with," Whitney said. "She is a good attorney. When she tells you something, you know she has done the research.

"But Mary is also fearless. If she believes that something is the right thing to do - that justice will be served if it is done - then she will go for it."

Ronald K. Fitten's phone message number is 206-464-3251. His e-mail address is: rfitten@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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