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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

On His Way to a Milestone

If Assembly candidate Van Tran wins as expected in November, he will be the first Vietnamese American elected to a state office.

March 04, 2004|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

With a commanding victory in Tuesday's Republican primary, Garden Grove Councilman Van Tran is almost certain to become the highest-ranking elected Vietnamese American in the country and the first in state office.

But that isn't his only breakthrough: His victory in the 68th Assembly District primary came by securing the Vietnamese American vote and by demonstrating mainstream appeal in cities such as Costa Mesa, where Asians make up only 7% of the population.

"Obviously the Vietnamese community is interested in seeing one of their own elected, but I think that, by and large, Republican voters saw him as closer to them on the most important issues," said Chris St. Hilaire, political consultant to the New Majority, an Orange County-based group of wealthy, moderate Republicans that threw its support -- and money -- behind Tran.

"To be a majority in California, the Republican Party needs to look like California."

Tran's story is not unlike those of many California immigrants. In 1975, when he was 10, his parents fled Communist-held Vietnam and came to the United States in search of a better life for their children.

He became a trial lawyer, devoted time to the community and worked his way into the political process -- as an aide to politicians and later as a Garden Grove planning commissioner and the city's first Vietnamese American council member since his election in 2000.

Those who know him say he is charismatic and personable, equally at home whether speaking Vietnamese to first-generation immigrants or addressing business leaders at a Chamber of Commerce mixer.

He faces Democratic businessman Al Snook in November, but the district is considered a Republican lock.

Tran, 39, shuns the presumptive title of "first" and "highest-ranking" Vietnamese American elected to state office, but it is an expected step in the social and political assimilation of an immigrant group.

"He's kind of the ... generation that's finally coming of age," said Linda Trinh Vo, assistant professor of Asian American studies at UC Irvine. "They're not in a survival mode anymore. They understand the political system here. They can get the political support, the money they need. They can actually think about the kinds of economic and political stakes that they have in this country."

As a result, they are increasingly politically active. The New Majority has helped register 27,000 Orange County Republicans in recent years, with much of the effort focused on the Vietnamese American community.

"There's a steady, continual growth in terms of political interest," Vo said, adding that Tran's election will only fuel the process. "It will enable others to run for office."

It's too soon to say how much Tran's involvement will open the doors for other aspiring Vietnamese American politicians, but St. Hilaire said: "Success breeds success. The fact that ... he's a Republican and from Orange County is a huge boost to the party."

But Tran is cautious in talking about his roots.

"I ran this campaign based on the merits and issues," he said Wednesday. "I didn't use my ethnicity as a qualifier. And it shouldn't be. I will represent the entire district and not just one city or one constituency over another."

To that end, Tran had two campaign headquarters -- one in Westminster's Little Saigon and another, pointedly, in Costa Mesa, where he devoted much of his time walking precincts and knocking on doors.

That decision paid off. Costa Mesa represented the district's largest voter base, and Tran trailed Garden Grove Councilman Mark Leyes there by only about half a percentage point.

Leyes blamed "negative campaigning" by Tran for the loss, but also said, "I thought it would be a little bit closer. Clearly, the Vietnamese vote accounted for most if not all of his victory margin."

Down to the wire on Tuesday, both sides were accusing the other of negative campaigning. Leyes has accused Tran of voter fraud and of mishandling absentee ballots.

And Tuesday afternoon, Tran's attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to Leyes, accusing him of a last-minute smear campaign. Several voters reported having received phone calls from "party officials" and a group called Southern California Citizens Against Illegal Immigration. The calls accused Tran of busing hundreds of illegal immigrants to the polls. Leyes denied any knowledge of such phone calls.

But with the votes counted -- Tran won 56% to 44% -- Tran said: "Republican voters now can see through that. They rejected these types of scare tactics at the 23rd hour."

On Wednesday, he thanked supporters, fielded congratulatory calls and conducted interviews. By midafternoon his voice was hoarse.

He wore a red tie that bore candy canes, as if he had haphazardly grabbed the wrong one when he rolled out of bed at 5 a.m. when his phone started ringing.

He explained that "red is my lucky color, and I feel like it's Christmas. It's a happy day for me."

Base of support

Van Tran, who won the GOP nomination for the 68th Assembly District race with 56% of the vote, did best in Garden Grove and Westminster, cities with the largest population of Vietnamese Americans.

Percentage of votes won, by city

*--* Mark Van City Leyes Tran Anaheim 52% 48% Costa Mesa 51 49 Fountain Valley 50 50 Garden Grove 37 63 Newport Beach 58 42 Stanton 40 60 Unincorporated 42 58 Westminster 32 68

*--*

Source: Orange County registar of voters

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