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Janet Nguyen becomes youngest O.C. supervisor

March 28, 2007|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

After a marathon election battle that required a judge to determine who won, a beaming Janet Nguyen, Orange County's first Vietnamese American supervisor, was sworn in Tuesday.

Nguyen, also the youngest supervisor in county history, received a bouquet and a standing ovation from an audience dotted with supporters from Little Saigon -- Orange County's Vietnamese community.

"Only in America can you find a 30-year-old Vietnamese woman given the opportunity, who can run and become a supervisor," she said.

The special election that landed Nguyen in the 1st District seat took place Feb. 6, but the legal wrangling over the results didn't end until Monday when Superior Court Judge Michael Brenner ruled that the recount of the election ballots was proper and should stand.

Trung Nguyen, a Garden Grove school board member, was the initial victor, winning by seven votes. But after a recount, Janet Nguyen pulled ahead by an identical number. That lead was narrowed to three votes when the matter landed in court after Trung Nguyen filed suit.

An attorney for Trung Nguyen said they were considering an appeal. Nevertheless, Janet Nguyen is -- officially now -- a county supervisor.

The two rivals split nearly half of the 46,000 votes cast in the special election, upending the political establishment and signaling the emergence of Vietnamese American political power.

Board Chairman Chris Norby, who introduced Nguyen, said she was the victor in the "longest, most difficult and certainly closest vote" in the history of the board.

"It's been a short election but a very, very, very long election day," said Nguyen, who added that she would work hard to unite the district.

She becomes the first woman to represent a supervisorial district from the county's central area, which has cities with the most minorities, such as Santa Ana, Westminster and Garden Grove, where Nguyen served as a City Council member.

Nguyen came to the United States from Vietnam when she was 5. While at UC Irvine, she took a political science class that changed her life.

Her instructor, William Steiner, who administered the oath of office, is a former supervisor and later became Nguyen's mentor.

"She was a 20-year-old premed student who got an 'A,' and changed her major to political science," Steiner said.

After graduation, Nguyen was an intern in Steiner's office, then worked for various elected officials including then-Republican Assemblyman Ken Maddox before she decided to run in 2004 for the Garden Grove council and won.

During the oath, Nguyen stood by her brother, Marine Cpl. Nam Nguyen, who held a Bible, and her husband, Thomas Bonikowski.

Anna Nguyen of Garden Grove, who is no relation to the supervisor, was among dozens of Vietnamese in the crowd. She said she was proud that in America, "your vote can really count."

david.reyes@latimes.com

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