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Turnabout in the O.C.

October 22, 2006

THE DESPICABLE INCIDENT was, sad to say, not new to Orange County: Republicans trying to scare immigrants away from the polls. But the GOP's reaction this time -- calling on its candidate to withdraw -- was miles away from previous behavior. Nativist immigrant bashing may be alive in the O.C., but it's not well.

To be sure, the party's reaction to its candidate for the 47th Congressional District was a no-brainer. Tan Nguyen -- himself an immigrant who seems to have forgotten the virulent racism that greeted many Vietnamese refugees when they arrived in Orange County -- never had much of a chance against incumbent Democrat Loretta Sanchez. That alone is an extraordinary change for a seat that used to be solidly Republican. Nguyen had received little GOP backing from the start, so there was no loss in cutting him loose and plenty to gain in good PR.

If the county GOP wanted to come completely clean, it would apologize for its unconscionable actions in a 1988 state Assembly election, when it hired uniformed poll guards to carry signs in Latino neighborhoods stating "Noncitizens Can't Vote." That was thuggish and intimidating, but at least it was accurate.

The Spanish-language letter that Nguyen's campaign sent last week to 14,000 registered Latino voters in Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana was incorrect, as well as threatening and not a little un-American. It claimed immigrants cannot vote (which would bar Nguyen himself from the polls) and ominously invoked the threat of jail time, deportation and Big Brother computer systems that would track down any would-be voters. It then announced that unlike in Mexico (the country Nguyen's campaign apparently assumes all Latinos are from), there is "no incentive" in the United States to vote. Guess democracy isn't a good enough reason.

It's possible that if this race were as near and dear to Republican strategy as the 1988 campaign, the GOP would make lighter of the deed. But there's a better chance modern-day Republicans would distance themselves from the odious stunt. The GOP has learned, through a series of political gaffes and electoral defeats, that Latinos are a potent constituency in this country who have not seen the Republican Party as their ally.

Call it enlightened self-interest on the GOP's part; it's still good to see Latino-targeted Jim Crow election chicanery getting the thrashing it deserves behind the Orange Curtain.

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