Orange County Republican leaders urged their own congressional candidate to withdraw from the race Thursday after he acknowledged that his campaign was involved in sending out a letter intended to scare off Latino voters.
Tan Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant waging an uphill battle against a longtime Democratic incumbent in central Orange County, faced a battery of questions from state attorney general's investigators and possible civil and criminal liability for voting rights violations.
With a political firestorm growing less than three weeks before the Nov. 7 election, Nguyen said Thursday that he had fired the campaign's office manager, who he said helped produce the letter, but that he had no prior knowledge of it.
His account was contradicted by the chairman of Orange County's Republican Party, who said he had been told by the mail house that sent the letter that Nguyen was personally involved in its development.
The episode was a jarring reminder of what some observers call Orange County's history of xenophobia and voter intimidation, an ugly distinction that Republican leaders say they've tried hard to bury.
Just days ago, Nguyen had been largely overlooked as a quixotic challenger to Democratic U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, running a largely self-funded campaign that had little support from the Republican Party apparatus.
But the racially charged letter sent to an estimated 14,000 registered voters in Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Anaheim brought sweeping, national condemnation from both political parties.
Written in Spanish, the letter stated at one point: "You are advised that if your residence in this country is illegal or you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time...."
The letter evoked memories of the 1988 race for the 71st Assembly District in Orange County, when the local GOP hired uniformed guards to stand in Latino neighborhoods with signs stating, "Non-Citizens Can't Vote." Even when it paid an undisclosed sum to settle a lawsuit, the GOP doggedly denied wrongdoing.
That is not the case today, as Republicans rush to condemn the letter. With the election 18 days away, politicians from the U.S. Senate to the state Senate on both sides of the aisle emerged to denounce the mailing, and several advocacy groups said they would hold rallies today and Saturday urging authorities to fully investigate the matter and prosecute anyone involved.
At the same time, Republican officials on Thursday quickly sought to distance themselves from Nguyen, with several calling for him to bow out of his underdog campaign.
Nguyen has hired a lawyer and met with investigators from the state attorney general's office Thursday.
Addressing questions about the letter publicly for the first time, Nguyen said his office manager "took it upon herself to allow our database to be used to send out the letter. It was disseminated without my authorization or approval."
The office manager, whose name was not made public, had been working for Nguyen since he opened his campaign office. He said the employee had access to a database of Democratic voters, which he bought to send mailers to 73,000 households.
Nguyen denied any involvement.
"People are pointing fingers saying that I did it, and that's going to get cleared up," he said. "I want to get the truth out so people can vote for candidates for the right reasons."
The office manager could not be reached for comment.
In an interview Thursday, Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh said representatives of the Huntington Beach mail house hired to send the letter told him Nguyen had been directly involved.
"It has been relayed to me that Mr. Nguyen himself was involved in expediting this particular mail piece," Baugh said. "He called the mail house and asked them to do it."
Christopher West, owner of Mailing Pros, said in a phone interview that he wouldn't confirm or deny that Nguyen was involved. He added that he had spoken with investigators from the attorney general's office and had told them "the whole enchilada."
Another person familiar with the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the campaign office manager gave the database to a volunteer, who paid for and oversaw the production of the mailers.
Baugh, who called the letter "reprehensible and stupid," said the party's executive committee voted unanimously to ask Nguyen to withdraw from the race.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called the letter "a despicable act of political intimidation and a hate crime," while Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Phil Angelides called it "the latest in a disgraceful pattern of efforts to intimidate Latino voters" by Republicans.
Rep. Sanchez said she hoped voters who received the letters would get additional correspondence, perhaps from the California secretary of state's office, encouraging them to vote. She said she was horrified that an immigrant was involved in such a scheme.