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GOP Loyalty Upstages Issues in Race

Two candidates vying for O.C. Assembly seat trade attacks on who is the better Republican.

February 26, 2004|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Candidates seeking the Republican nomination to replace termed-out Assemblyman Ken Maddox aren't just debating weighty issues such as the state budget, public safety and education. No, this primary race is classic Orange County GOP politics -- with a twist.

Garden Grove City Councilmen Van Tran and Mark Leyes both say they are the more conservative choice. But history could be made if Tran prevails in Tuesday's primary and wins election in the fall: He would become the highest-ranking elected Vietnamese American in the country, said Mark Petracca, associate professor of political science at UC Irvine.

"This is the nature of primary Republican politics in Orange County," Petracca said. "There's a kind of kindergarten quality of people accusing each other of not being a good Republican: 'Am too. Are not. Am too. Are not.' That goes on all the time."

In recent weeks, both Tran and Leyes have unleashed a barrage of campaign mailers, all with the same bent, in an effort to win GOP votes in the 68th Assembly District, which includes Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Westminster, Stanton and Costa Mesa. Because Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district 4 to 3, the Republican nominee would have a huge advantage in the November general election.

Tran's literature shows him side by side with President Bush under a quote from Maddox referring to Tran as "Mr. Republican." He has attacked Leyes for being a former Democrat, calling him a "Bill Clinton supporter" and a "Democrat dressed in Republican clothing."

Leyes' campaign has sent similar fliers, including one with photos of prominent, elected Democrats and this statement: "See why these Democrats can thank Van Thai Tran...." Some of those politicians won narrow races, and Leyes has said that Tran has helped register more than 1,000 Vietnamese Democrats and independents.

Both candidates have served as aides to elected officials. Leyes works for Republican Assemblyman Bob Pacheco of Walnut, though he is on leave while campaigning. And Tran, an attorney, worked for former Rep. Robert K. Dornan.

The two agree on most issues, although they differ on Proposition 57, which calls for a $15-billion bond measure to pay off the state deficit; Leyes is in favor and Tran is opposed. So the debate mostly comes down to party loyalty and conservatism.

"I've been a consistent and a loyal Republican since my adult life," Tran said. "I've never changed or flip-flopped on issues or party affiliation for political expediency."

Leyes said he became a Republican during the Clinton era because he realized that the Republican Party reflected his personal values. Tran, Leyes said, "has been so focused on community activism that it's been at the expense of Republican Party goals."

Leyes recently sent out a letter from Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, a former Assembly speaker, in which Pringle said Leyes is more conservative than Tran, and Leyes is the candidate he trusts to work for lower taxes, smaller government, better schools and tough laws.

"Those who have made a party determination by choice are always much more [convinced] of those principles," Pringle said in an interview. "If you see his activism within the party, if you see his commitment to party issues, you know it is not phony."

Aside from the question of who is the better Republican, Petracca said both candidates will have to work to get their names out in Costa Mesa, where they may be less known. Both have high profiles in Garden Grove, where they serve together on the council. Leyes may have the slight edge on name recognition because he ran for the county Board of Supervisors in 1996.

Tran probably holds the edge among Vietnamese voters concentrated in Fountain Valley and Westminster -- and given the historic nature of his candidacy, they may turn out in higher numbers to vote.

But changes in district boundaries after the 2000 census mean "the [Vietnamese] ties are now dissipated by the fact that the district now includes portions of Orange County that don't include high concentrations of members of the Vietnamese community," Petracca said.

Leyes, though, said he is not conceding anything. His focus has been on Fountain Valley and Costa Mesa, where he is less known, and he has been making appearances on Vietnamese-language radio stations.

And Tran, who immigrated to the United States in 1975, said he is less concerned about the title of highest-ranking Vietnamese American elected official than in serving his district. "We are all Americans here. I am an American candidate running for a seat that represents Americans."

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