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Trung Nguyen on top by 7 votes

Rival Janet Nguyen is expected to seek a recount in the O.C. supervisorial race whose outcome surprised many observers.

February 08, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

A Vietnamese American school board member from Garden Grove who was a political unknown two months ago emerged Wednesday as the winner of an Orange County Board of Supervisors seat by just seven votes out of nearly 46,000 cast.

But an expected recount means the election may not be settled for weeks.

Trung Nguyen, a 49-year-old lawyer and engineer who was elected to his first term on the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Trustees in 2004, won the election with 10,920 votes, compared with 10,913 for Janet Nguyen, a Garden Grove city councilwoman who was a fierce rival of Trung Nguyen throughout the six-week campaign.

"Seven votes," Trung Nguyen, no relation to Janet Nguyen, said Wednesday evening. "I'm glad it went my way. I'd like more, but I'll take what I can get."

The election places the 1st District seat, representing Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Westminster, back in Republican hands, cementing an all-Republican Board of Supervisors and ending the brief inroads made by Democrats, who held the seat since Lou Correa was elected in 2004. It also demonstrated new political strength for the Vietnamese community in Orange County.

The Nguyens beat six others in the race, including better-known candidates who had the backing of the Democratic and Republican establishments. With each of them receiving 24.1% of the vote, the two Vietnamese American candidates combined received nearly half the votes. They defeated former Democratic Assemblyman Tom Umberg, the best known candidate in the race, and Santa Ana Councilman Carlos Bustamante, a Republican favorite.

"This is a new era in politics in Orange County," said Nick Berardino, the general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., a public employees union that supported Umberg.

Although such identity politics have been historically common in other ethnic groups and in other places, political operatives and observers said it was a new, and surprising, phenomenon in Orange County.

John Lewis, a campaign consultant to Bustamante, said that at the beginning of the race he expected the key factors to be party registration, city of residence and ethnicity.

"As it turns out, party registration and geographic base had almost nothing to do with this," he said. "It ended up being all about ethnicity. I don't think I've ever seen an election quite like this one."

The seat came open when Correa was elected to the state Senate in November.

Trung Nguyen campaigned as a staunch conservative who would crack down on illegal immigration and champion the schools.

But his biggest strength may have been receiving the endorsement and support of Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Westminster), who has emerged as a kingmaker in Vietnamese politics, as well as Michael Schroeder, a former state Republican Party chairman.

Tran's backing came with an effective political machine -- in this case, one that produced thousands of absentee votes for the candidate, which helped overcome dismal election day turnout at the polls.

Fewer than a quarter of the ballots were cast at the polls, with the remainder sent in as absentee ballots. Dave Gilliard, a consultant for Janet Nguyen's campaign, said they were not ready to concede and would request a recount. The review would be paid for by Janet Nguyen's campaign.

Janet Nguyen and Trung Nguyen aggressively attacked each other in the race, and several political observers said Wednesday that the attention the vitriol may have helped drive Vietnamese turnout.

Trung Nguyen's campaign accused Janet Nguyen in a campaign mail piece of claiming more credit for accomplishments than she was entitled to. Not long after, Janet Nguyen's campaign was fiercely critical of Trung Nguyen after one of his campaign mailers contained a photograph altered to make it appear as though Trung was standing near Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at an event.

An independent campaign sent a mailer on Trung Nguyen's behalf calling him a "respected leader" but dismissing Janet Nguyen as a "wannabe politician."

"We were basically ambushed in a crossfire amid war for the soul of the Vietnamese community," said Berardino, "The outcome was that the Democratic as well as the Republican establishment were, I think, surprised."



Vote breakdown

Trung Nguyen won the 1st supervisor district seat by 7 votes. Turnout for the race was 22.4%.

*--* Candidate Votes Pct. Trung Nguyen 10,920 24.1% Janet Nguyen 10,913 24.1 Tom Umberg 9,728 21.4 Carlos Bustamante 7,475 16.5 Mark Rosen 2,182 4.8 Brett E. Franklin 1,739 3.8 Kermit Marsh 1,335 2.9 Larry Phan 419 0.9 Lupe Moreno 384 0.8 Benny Diaz 274 0.6


Source: Orange County registrar of voters

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