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Little Saigon Radio Host Seeks to Be Heard

Van Vo's message echoes Republican values. He campaigns statewide to be noticed in the crush of other lesser-known candidates in the race.

September 28, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

He's called the Rush Limbaugh of Little Saigon, a fervent anti-Communist whose "Living in America" is the longest-running Vietnamese-language radio talk show in California.

For Van Vo, 53, one of the 135 candidates hoping to replace Gov. Gray Davis on Oct. 7, the recall election represents his best and probably only shot at running for statewide office.

"This is the best chance for me to have a voice for our community on this level," he said from the Garden Grove storefront where he produces his daily radio show. "I'm running for the same reason others are: I want to send a message."

Many of Republican Vo's political proposals echo those of his GOP colleagues: Assist manufacturers, retailers and entrepreneurs to spur the state's economy; encourage more private investment to enhance job growth; reform the state budget process to eliminate deficit spending; address Southern California's shrinking water supplies. To those, he adds: Establish better laws to protect laborers from unscrupulous employers and create more affordable housing.

Vo's chances of delivering his message are both enhanced and hurt by the oddities of the recall campaign, said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former advisor to the national Republican Party.

Minor candidates are getting more attention because of the winner-take-all nature of the race, he said, but the lion's share is still focused on the top two or three.

"Of the 130 or so minor candidates, the biggest problem they face is the 129 or so other minor candidates," Pitney said. If there were only a few, each "might be able to get more attention. But having to share a mini-spotlight with so many others is difficult."

Vo hopes to counter that by anchoring his campaign in California's Asian American communities. He made a recent campaign swing through Northern California, stopping in San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco. His message was that the state's economic woes have hit all Californians hard, particularly minorities.

His radio show, for example, lost sponsors as budgets tightened, shrinking the number of hours he can broadcast each day.

"In areas like San Jose, they are laying off thousands of people in the last two years," he said. "The engineer will now be a waiter because they have no jobs. Businesses can't add jobs because the cost is too high."

Concentrating on Asian American communities is a smart strategy for Vo, Pitney said. Much of the challenge for lesser candidates will be to tell voters where to find them on the 135-name ballot.

"That's almost an impossible burden," Pitney said. "In the areas of Vietnamese concentration, he may actually get a measurable vote. He's not going to be governor, but he might get on the scoreboard in certain areas."

Despite his local reputation, Vo must prove himself to mainstream voters, said Garden Grove Councilman Van Tran, a candidate for the Assembly in the March election.

"Any candidate ... has to get their message out and work for every vote," Tran said. "You can't take any one community for granted. It's nice that he has the Vietnamese constituency, but he has to prove himself and reach out. At the end of the day, people want to hear his message."

Vo's message includes gratitude for his adopted country. He immigrated to the United States in 1975 from Hue, Vietnam, with the wave of immigrants who fled after the fall of Saigon. He settled first in Indiana, then moved to Southern California in 1987. In 1989, he founded the Vietnamese American Business Assn.

Two years later, he began "Living in America," which encourages callers to sound off on current events, politics and other issues dear to the Vietnamese American community. Vo acts as listener and moderator, letting callers choose the topics.

One of the recurring themes is a fervent opposition to communism. In January 1999, Vo urged listeners to protest the display of the flag of communist Vietnam and a photo of the late leader Ho Chi Minh in a Little Saigon video store. About 400 demonstrators filled the shopping center parking lot the next day. The crowds eventually peaked at 15,000 and protested, not only the display, but also human-rights abuses in Vietnam.

Vo later used his program to raise funds for the Vietnam War Memorial in Westminster, which was dedicated in April. It depicts a South Vietnamese and a U.S. soldier in bronze.

After the recall election qualified for the ballot, Vo said, he met with business and community leaders in Little Saigon and waited for an Asian American candidate to emerge. None did. So on the last day to qualify for the ballot, Vo held a signature-gathering party outside his shop and paid his candidacy fee. His fund-raising has been so meager that he is not even required to disclose his campaign finances.

"I'm practicing democracy in this country," he said. "I'm not a professional politician."

If a candidate gets support from either party, he said, special interests "already have been promised something. They don't work for the people. The professional politicians can't do the job, so maybe we need someone else."

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