Judging by the anti-illegal immigrant campaign rhetoric, voters in Orange County might think they're going to the polls Tuesday to elect a new chief of the Border Patrol instead of a member of the Board of Supervisors, a job that has almost no authority over the immigration issues the candidates are raising.
Tom Umberg, the leading Democrat in the nonpartisan race, has touted his prosecution of traffickers of illegal immigrants as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Janet Nguyen, a Republican contender, sent out a campaign mailer highlighting the "right way" to immigrate -- illustrated with a photo of people taking the oath of citizenship -- and the "wrong way," with a picture of people climbing over a fence.
Fellow Republican Trung Nguyen said in his mailer that he opposes amnesty, driver's licenses and taxpayer-funded college tuition for illegal immigrants, ignoring the fact that policies on those matters are set at the federal and state level.
Illegal immigration played a prominent role in the supervisor's race last year between Cathryn DeYoung and winner Patricia Bates. But that race took place in South County, where the voting population is richer, whiter and more conservative than in the 1st District, which has a large Latino population and where voter registration is split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
Emphasizing a tough-on-illegal-immigration stance there might seem risky. But with low voter turnout expected, candidates are gambling that such a polarizing issue can drive conservatives to the polls, because they tend to vote more in special elections such as this one.
"This issue, in effect, becomes a kind of proxy to mobilize people," said Mark Petracca, chairman of the political science department at UC Irvine. "The reality is, is it better public policy to run an election on immigration issues rather than bread-and-butter issues? Obviously it isn't. Is it better strategic politics? Absolutely."
The emphasis on illegal immigration has been just one twist in the race to replace Lou Correa, whose election to the state Senate in November set off a six-week sprint to fill his seat.
At the outset, prognosticators viewed the race as a battle between Umberg, who represented the area in the Assembly, and Carlos Bustamante, a Latino Republican Santa Ana city councilman born and raised in that city.
But most of the controversy in the race has been generated by the two Vietnamese American candidates from Garden Grove, the unrelated Janet Nguyen and Trung Nguyen, with each accusing the other of playing dirty.
As the number of absentee ballots cast in recent days has made clear, Vietnamese Americans and Republican voters are turning out in greater force than anyone expected.
As a result, political observers say the numbers could foreshadow bad news for Bustamante, because of a comparatively low number of Latino ballots returned, and for Umberg, because of lower Democratic numbers.
The eight candidates have had little interaction. Two candidate forums were sparsely attended, even by the candidates. At one sponsored by AARP, Bustamante and Umberg were the only candidates who showed; at another, which the League of Women Voters sponsored, only Bustamante, Garden Grove City Councilman Mark Rosen and Democratic Party activist Benny Diaz were present.
Orange County's 1st District has long been regarded as the most neglected of the five, and each candidate has tried to become positioned as the one who will finally bring home the resources the district needs. The district has a crime rate among the highest in the county. Voters want more public safety services and better education and worry about access to healthcare. Santa Ana, within the district, also has the least amount of park space per capita in the state, according to Umberg.
Still, illegal immigration has taken on the high-profile role.
"The fact is, illegal immigration is still a very important issue. It's topical. Voters in the district care about the issue," said Adam Probolsky, a Republican pollster who has worked for Janet Nguyen. "And the fact that local government more and more is engaging in the business of fighting illegal immigration because the state and federal government aren't picking up the slack, it's very relevant for a county supervisor candidate to weigh in on the issue."
In an interview, Trung Nguyen said he emphasized anti-illegal immigration policies in his campaign because it came down to safeguarding taxpayer funds, but acknowledged his role in setting policy on the subject was limited to mere advocacy.
"Illegal immigration hurts every single one of us, no matter what ethnic group they come from," he said.
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Orange County 1st District supervisorial race