SACRAMENTO -- State Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi entered the political world as a survivor of a tormented childhood, losing an older sister at 17 to suicide and watching as her disgraced parents burned her sister's clothes, cut her out of photos and never mentioned her name again.
Yet Hayashi quickly built a name for herself at the Capitol after becoming the first Korean-American woman to serve in the Legislature. She became part of the inner circles of two Assembly speakers. A magazine named her one of the 100 most influential Asian-Americans of the past decade.
Now, a new and puzzling source of shame is threatening to ground this once-rising East Bay Democrat and dash her plans to run for the state Senate: a bizarre grand theft charge that accuses her of shoplifting nearly $2,500 of clothes at San Francisco's Neiman Marcus on Oct. 25.
While the case has embarrassed fellow lawmakers and could make Hayashi the first California lawmaker in 18 years to be ousted because of a felony conviction, it has focused new attention on what legislative staffers call Hayashi's overly ambitious and sometimes erratic behavior.
Her criminal case has caused tongues to wag at the Capitol and jolted the tight-knit Korean-American community, where many view her as a role model.
"I'm saddened because she's somebody that many in the Korean-American community have looked up to," said Jiyon Yun, a Walnut Creek attorney. "She's had so many accomplishments and contributed so much to so many efforts and projects, I hope this doesn't take away from what she's been working on."
Hayashi, 45, didn't return a call to be interviewed. But through her attorney, she claims her ordeal was caused by a misunderstanding. She says she was distracted on her cellphone as she carried black leather pants, a black leather skirt and a white blouse out of the store. She says she put the items in a shopping bag and forgot to pay for them.
On Dec. 7, a San Francisco judge is expected to set a date for her preliminary hearing.
All but a handful of legislators demurred when asked to talk about Hayashi. But some of those who did said her arrest has cast a pall over a Legislature whose approval rating was already in single-digits.
"Whether these allegations are true or not, people just think it's typical of all legislators, and it's not," said Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-San Ramon. "I believe legislators have a higher duty to make sure we do things the right way. Whether it's the allegations with Mary or DUIs, we're human and we make mistakes. But we're in leadership roles, and I don't think it's healthy for our institution."
Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, called Hayashi a "hardworking legislator who takes her positions very seriously." Still, there's little doubt that she's not very popular among her colleagues -- and can be a tough boss.
Hayashi, who is midway through the last of her three Assembly terms, has been through five chiefs of staff in five years, and many other staffers are long gone.
Legislative staffers and lawmakers describe Hayashi as power-hungry and sometimes on edge. They say she used her position as chairwoman of the Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee to rule with a heavy hand.
"She runs roughshod over people and doesn't think much of it," said one legislative staff member, who asked not to be identified for fear of professional retribution. "She works really hard; she's always in motion. I'd never fault her work ethic. But she'll do almost anything to succeed."
Her chief consultant, Ross Warren, disagreed with that characterization.
"She's an effective chair over a very challenging committee," Warren said. "I don't think she's run roughshod over anybody. She's very actively engaged. ... She takes on tough issues and the business and professions committee is one with a lot of conflict."
One time after two Democratic legislators voted against a bill she wanted passed in her committee, she killed bills from both authors and refused to allow the measures to be reconsidered -- something that's typically offered as a collegial gesture.
She's had public spats with fellow legislators and run-ins with local political leaders. Her disagreement with state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, over a bill to save a San Leandro hospital spilled into the public with dueling accusatory news releases before the two settled the issue.
Three years ago, Hayashi raised eyebrows when she turned more than $200,000 from her own campaign funds into a hefty contribution to her husband, Dennis Hayashi, for his successful campaign to become an Alameda County Superior Court judge.
She was caught allowing fellow legislators to "ghost" vote for her, in violation of Assembly rules, while she headed her committee. It became apparent she wasn't casting her own vote when her name on the voting board toggled back and forth between a "yes" and "no." Then-Assembly members Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Kevin DeLeon, D-Los Angeles, were recording votes on how they thought she wanted to vote on a bill.
Hayashi's first Assembly opponent, former Alameda County fire Chief Bill McCammon, whom she narrowly defeated in the 2006 Democratic primary, complained that immediately after she first took office Hayashi tried to block funds for a communications program he was running for San Leandro.
Hayashi knows how to move to the power centers. She became a personal friend of former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who appointed her to the business committee, where her relationship with health professions and labor groups that go before her have helped fill her campaign coffers. And she later was a key player in engineering the rise of Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, to power.
She now has $800,000 in her war chest for a 2014 Senate run -- presumably in a realigned district now partially represented by termed-out Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara.
Hayashi was born with the name Chung Mi Kyung. Her family had emigrated from South Korea in 1980, six months after her sister took her own life.
Eventually, her trauma over the suicide led to a long exploration of the Asian-American culture of silence surrounding mental illness. She became one of the nation's leading voices on the subject.
Even Hayashi's detractors say she has succeeded as an advocate on mental illness and women's health issues. Before joining the Legislature, she founded the National Asian Women's Health Organization and the Iris Alliance Fund, a nonprofit group targeting suicidal teens. She wrote a book, "Far From Home: Shattering the Myth of the Model Minority," that details the path she took after her sister's suicide. Ladies' Home Journal called her a "woman to watch."
But now she faces an early departure from the Legislature and ending her political career in disgrace.
Family: Married to Dennis Hayashi, an Alameda County Superior Court judge
District office: Castro Valley
Education: Bachelor of science in applied economics from University of San Francisco; MBA from Golden Gate University.
Political career: Served in Assembly since 2007.