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Vietnamese voters at epicenter of O.C. political earthquake

February 10, 2007|Christian Berthelsen and Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writers

The two Republicans named Nguyen entered the race for a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors as blips on the establishment's screen: He an obscure school board member, she a neophyte councilwoman.

Against them stood candidates anointed by the Republican and Democratic machines -- as well as the wisdom that in immigrant-rich central Orange County, party loyalties won elections.

When the votes for the 1st District race were tallied this week, the Nguyens, who are not related, had easily eclipsed the two favorites by shrewdly courting ethnic loyalties and the absentee vote.

Between them, the two bitter rivals won nearly half of the 46,000 votes cast in the Tuesday special election, with Trung Nguyen defeating Janet Nguyen by just seven ballots. She has asked for a recount. But whoever prevails will be Orange County's first Vietnamese American supervisor, demonstrating the emergence of Vietnamese political power.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Vietnamese voters: An article in Saturday's Section A about the rise of Vietnamese American political power in Orange County gave the number of people of Vietnamese descent in the county as both 135,000 and 250,000. The 2000 census figure is 135,548.

"There was a major political earthquake in central Orange County this week," said Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove), who became California's highest-ranking Vietnamese American official when he was elected to the Legislature two years ago.

The strong showing by two Vietnamese candidates is further indication that the stereotype of Orange County as an all-white, wealthy, image-conscious community is not accurate, said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. He called the county "wonderfully pluralistic."

"It's not playing by the usual playbook, which is: Minorities tend to vote Democratic," he said. "This is not your father's Orange County."

Trung Nguyen, 49, a lawyer and member of the Garden Grove school board, and Janet Nguyen, 30, a first-term Garden Grove city councilwoman, campaigned as conservatives who promised to crack down on illegal immigration in a district where Latinos make up nearly a third of registered voters.

The split between Republicans and Democrats is nearly even in the district, which includes Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Westminster

"All candidates should know by now they can't win an election around here without the support of the Vietnamese community," said Lan Nguyen, president of the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Trustees and no relation to either candidate, who supported Trung Nguyen. He called the election a milestone for the county's Vietnamese community.

Political operatives and observers were surprised by the extent to which ethnic identity played a role in voters' decisions.

Janet Nguyen said the election showed that Vietnamese voters "understand the political philosophy that every vote counts," adding: "They are now entering American politics."

Vietnamese comprise just a quarter of the registered voters in the 1st District, but they cast roughly half the absentee ballots -- in an election where about 75% of the votes were cast by absentees. Both Nguyen campaigns, correctly predicting an anemic election day turnout (22.4%), focused their efforts on reaching absentee voters.

Trung Nguyen operative Saulo Londono said the campaign contacted every absentee voter six to 10 times.

Orange County now has 10 elected Vietnamese American officeholders on city councils, school boards, a county water district and in the Assembly.

"Ethnic voting is a long-established pattern in American politics," Pitney said. "As the Vietnamese community has matured, it's logical they'd exercise their voting strength."

He said most Vietnamese vote Republican for reasons ranging from anti-communism to anti-abortion sentiment. "Just as Cubans are the most strongly Republican Latino community, the Vietnamese are the most strongly Republican Asian Community," Pitney said.

Tran is credited with spearheading the local Vietnamese political surge. In Tuesday's election, Tran threw his political machine behind Trung Nguyen. Tran said the Nguyens' strong showing will likely give rise to more, qualified Vietnamese candidates.

In this week's election, the Nguyens each took 24.1% of the vote. The union-backed Democratic favorite, Tom Umberg, a former assemblyman and Clinton administration official, finished third with 21.4%, while the anointed Republican, Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante, was fourth with 16.5%.

Compared with the Nguyens, the other candidates paid little attention to absentee voters. Latino voters, considered natural constituents of Bustamante and Umberg, returned fewer than 4,000 absentee ballots, or 12% of the total absentees.

In a nation with more than 1 million people of Vietnamese descent, California has the largest concentration, with 135,000 in Orange County and 100,000 in Santa Clara County. In this election, the appeal to ethnic solidarity was undisguised.

"My family immigrated here the right way -- legally -- like millions before them over the years," said a campaign mailer from Janet Nguyen.

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