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A Tone of Exclusion : GOP's Grip on County Gives It Little Incentive--or Need--to Reach Out to Ethnic Groups

REPUBLICAN REIGN. Orange County conservatives and the pursuit of power . Fourth of five parts.


When then-Sen. Bob Dole decided to stop in Orange County last March and campaign before a group that included prominent Vietnamese Americans, Quynh Trang Nguyen felt it was a watershed moment of political recognition for members of her community.

But then the Republican presidential candidate launched into a speech supporting English-only initiatives, opposing affirmative action and reminding the crowd they live in the U.S.A. and should always "keep that in mind." Nguyen shook her head and left the event early.

Although views on such subjects differ greatly within ethnic groups, Nguyen walked away that day feeling there was an anti-immigrant tone to Dole's message.

"I was so frustrated," said Nguyen, president of Little Saigon radio and television stations. "But it was a start. . . . It will get better someday."

Perhaps someday the tone will sound more inclusive, but not likely any time soon.

The local GOP has such a controlling grip on Orange County politics that there is little incentive, or need, to reach out and attract significant numbers of minorities into the party's so-called "Big Tent."

Except for occasional registration drives and breakfast get-togethers, ethnic groups have been largely ignored by party leaders, both as voters and as candidates.

And, as Dole's campaign stumping showed, there seems to be no real effort to address the concerns of minorities whose numbers continue to grow in the county, but whose poor turnout on election days makes them an insignificant voting bloc.

"The image of Orange County Republicanism is the rigid, white male conservative who has very little tolerance for women and minorities," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School.

It is an image party leaders have done little to dispel.

By most accounts, the GOP has achieved its greatest relative success among the county's Vietnamese Americans, many of whom believe the party is more anti-Communist in its views than the Democrats. As a result, party leaders don't need to make much of an effort to bring them into the GOP.

Beyond the Vietnamese Americans, however, the party has failed to significantly reach other ethnic groups, particularly Latinos, largely because of philosophical differences on health and welfare assistance, immigration and affirmative action.

Moreover, party leaders say they are unwilling to change their platform just to appeal to minorities.

"We are a philosophically grounded party," Orange County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes said.

Indeed it is.

A new Times Orange County Poll found that local Republicans are overwhelmingly against affirmative action and bilingual education programs--dramatically more so than adults nationwide.

Orange County Republicans also believe illegal immigration is a "major problem" in Southern California, and 45% said in the poll they favor building a wall along the United States and Mexican border.

If those positions offend, party leaders say, so be it.

Minority leaders argue that it is shortsighted of local GOP officials not to reach out to their communities.

"The future of this county is very much in the hands of the Latinos," said John Acosta, a registered Republican and former Santa Ana councilman. "Look around. You'll see many more brown faces than white faces in our schools today. The party is really remiss in not looking at this. They seem to be burying their heads in the sand like they don't want this to be true."

Acosta said GOP leaders have barely acknowledged the Latino community in the county because they are afraid of losing their grip on the party's power structure.

"The good ol' boy system is fearing that the Latinos will take over," he said. "I think they don't want Latinos getting too good of a foothold in the party."

But even Acosta realizes that minorities won't gain so much as a toehold until they start registering and voting in large numbers. By then, it could be too late for Republicans to bring minorities into their camp.

"The [GOP] needs to prove by actions and words that it is all encompassing, that there is room for different shades of attitude," Jeffe said. "If they don't, time may well come when they are no longer the dominant party in Orange County."

But not all Vietnamese Americans or all Latinos hold the same political and social views. Appealing to everybody is impossible.

"Let's not assume there is this cookie cutter of voter behavior for every ethnic group," Jeffe said. "There is great diversity within each ethnic group."

As a result, Fuentes said the Republicans have targeted, and are most successful with, minorities' members who are affluent and business-oriented, with strong religious beliefs against abortion.

Currently, minorities represent more than 35% of the county's 2.4 million residents--a percentage that is expected to grow by the end of the decade. Only 19% of Orange County's registered voters, however, are minorities, according to the 1995 Orange County Annual Survey conducted by UC Irvine.

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