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Campaign scandal peeves Little Saigon

Congressional hopeful's letter warning Latino immigrants not to vote brings publicity that's embarrassing to many.

October 25, 2006|Mai Tran, Kelly-Anne Suarez and Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writers

For years, the periodic eruptions of controversy in Little Saigon have played out as mostly insular affairs, however raucous -- family tiffs in a community that prefers to keep its arguments in-house.

Now, as if to signify a final rite of passage into U.S. political power, the immigrant community here faces an unwelcome national spotlight with a full-fledged, old-fashioned American scandal centering on a congressional candidate's alleged dirty trick.

Mostly, people in Little Saigon -- an immigrant community that includes parts of Westminster, Garden Grove and Santa Ana -- are embarrassed by Tan Nguyen, a Republican who acknowledges that his campaign sent out a letter to thousands of registered Democrats with Latino surnames. It warned in Spanish that immigrants might be jailed or deported if they were to vote. Nguyen says the letter, which has sparked national condemnation, was the work of a campaign staffer and an innocent mistake, though he calls its message accurate and legal.

In front of the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster on Tuesday, clusters of men gathered under umbrellas with cigarettes and Vietnamese-language newspapers, trading opinions. Many were anxious to learn whether Nguyen -- who is being investigated by the state attorney general's office over the letter -- will be charged with a crime.

"If he really did it, it's an embarrassment for the Vietnamese community," said White Dao, a retired golf club worker from Westminster. But Dao added that he would vote for Nguyen anyway "because he's Vietnamese and he's always going to help the Vietnamese community."

Last week, before Nguyen's office was linked to the letter, Vietnamese-language media, including an alternative newspaper, Viet Weekly, were touting him as a strong candidate against Democratic incumbent Loretta Sanchez in the 47th District, even though he is otherwise viewed as having little chance.

When the scandal broke, candidates running for other offices were swift in their denunciation of Nguyen, and the Vietnamese American media started running translated articles from mainstream newspapers.

"There's been a lot of interest in this story," said Le Vu, publisher of Viet Weekly. "We get calls from all over the place asking what's going on with Tan Nguyen." Vu said Thursday's issue will be entirely about Nguyen.

Tony Vo, a 22-year-old Anaheim man who manages an ice cream shop, said the letter was a disappointment. "He's just trying to get ahead," Vo said. "It just shows that he's got no integrity."

Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove), whose rise to office has reflected the dramatic ascent of the Vietnamese American political voice, said Nguyen alone was responsible for his actions.

"The Vietnamese community is troubled by what has happened and feels a lot of regret for the entire scandal," Tran said. "You cannot indict the entire community, which has very good relations with the Hispanic community in the past, on the action of one individual."

Phu Nguyen, vice president of the Vietnamese American Community of Southern California and no relation to Tan Nguyen, said many people were hoping the candidate wasn't behind the letter.

While Tan Nguyen made stemming illegal immigration the centerpiece of his candidacy for Congress, Phu Nguyen said that among Vietnamese Americans, immigration was not a predominant concern.

"We're here legally and we've gone through great hardships, but I don't think all that gives us any right to look down upon those who got here illegally," Phu Nguyen said. "Whether we're here legally or illegally, we all strive for the same thing. We come here for the opportunity."

Jeffrey Brody, a professor at Cal State Fullerton and expert on the Vietnamese American experience, said that although anticommunist sentiment has traditionally drawn Vietnamese immigrants to the Republican Party, Democrats' emphasis on social services has for some years been winning over many of them.

In 1975, when the fall of Saigon generated the first great wave of Vietnamese refugees, the feeling in Congress and among the American public was against their settling in the United States. A push from President Ford made it possible.

"Maybe Nguyen has forgotten his history," Brody said. "It took the president of the United States to get the country behind the resettlement of the Vietnamese.... It would seem to me that if you're refugees, you'd have sympathy for fellow immigrants."

Daniel Do-Khanh, an Irvine lawyer active in the Vietnamese community, said that in many cases, votes are cast not along party lines but over issues or candidates. "I would say the issues that affect Vietnamese Americans are the same that affect the general community," Do-Khanh said. "Healthcare. Crime."

He described Nguyen as "just a flash-in-the-pan, rogue politician" whose behavior "undermines the work of so many people that have spent time building bridges among communities."

Do-Khanh added: "He stands no chance against Loretta Sanchez. He's not even a blip on the radar."

Little Saigon, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, has seen its share of drama, but nothing of this particular stripe. In 1999, after a merchant posted a Communist flag and a photograph of the late Ho Chi Minh in his Westminster video store, outraged crowds staged a 53-day protest on Bolsa Avenue.

In 2004, Little Saigon roundly criticized the former premier of South Vietnam, a California resident, when he decided to visit that now-Communist country. In 2005, threats of protest thwarted a Little Saigon visit by the Vietnamese prime minister.


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