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Nguyen wins, but at a price

Vitriol between the supervisor and Assemblyman Tran affects community.

June 05, 2008|My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writer

For weeks, rumors swirled in the coffeehouses of Little Saigon that Supervisor Janet Nguyen had accepted campaign money from an alleged communist sympathizer -- an incendiary accusation in Orange County's Vietnamese community and one that could damage her reelection bid.

When the allegations hit Vietnamese-language newspapers, Nguyen's political enemies such as Assemblyman Van Tran joined the chorus.

Nguyen fought back by turning the tables and -- only three days before the election -- lobbed accusations of communist sympathizing against Tran. For years, Tran has been seen as the kingmaker in Vietnamese American politics.

On Tuesday, Nguyen easily won a full term on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, turning aside Tran's efforts to derail her campaign and defeating two Vietnamese American candidates.

But the redbaiting and mudslinging between two of the community's leading politicians, Tran and Nguyen, has become a sign of discord in America's largest Vietnamese community. The two Republicans -- she the youngest supervisor in county history, he the highest-ranking Vietnamese American officeholder in the nation -- have drawn Vietnamese voters into two camps.

"Before, when there was only one Vietnamese on the ballot, it was an easy thing to decide who to vote for," said Khoi Ta, a former staffer for Rep. Loretta Sanchez who follows Little Saigon politics. "Being Vietnamese was the tie that [bound] everyone together, but now voters have a choice."

To other political observers, the competition and the political factions in the Vietnamese community are a sign of maturity that has followed other ethnic groups as they have gained political strength.

Nguyen's victory Tuesday was her second win over a candidate backed by Tran and his machine. Last year, she sparred with Trung Nguyen in a vitriolic campaign for the open supervisorial seat that was heavily followed by Vietnamese media. Janet Nguyen won by three votes, after a recount and court battle.

This time she avoided a runoff, despite Tran's heavy support for her chief opponent, emerging in some eyes as the fresh face of Vietnamese American political power.

Tran and Janet Nguyen were once chummy up-and-coming politicians. As a Garden Grove councilman, he helped her get elected to the council in 2004.

Tran is credited with spearheading the Vietnamese political surge, with large voter registration drives and support for Vietnamese American candidates. Today, Orange County has 10 Vietnamese American elected officials, and most support Tran. Even politicians from other Vietnamese enclaves seek his support.

As Tran and Janet Nguyen moved to higher office, the two became fierce foes. In the recent election, Tran spoke out against Nguyen when the county GOP party wrestled with whether to endorse her, which it ultimately did.

And Nguyen attacked Tran more forcefully than she did her leading opponent for the supervisor seat.

"Compatriots, be aware!!!," read a Nguyen campaign e-mail in Vietnamese, which showed photos of her attending anticommunist protests. "Here are the answers to slander by other candidates and elected officers in Assemblyman Van Tran's group."

Though it may sound like the stuff of Cold War politics to some, accusations that someone is soft on communism still resonate in Little Saigon and other Vietnamese communities. Many residents here fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975 when the communist regime gained control of the country. Although some Vietnamese Americans have become more accepting of those who do business or associate with their home country, emotions still run strong.

Most politicians in Little Saigon take a hard line against communist officials visiting the area and have spoken out against the Vietnamese government.

"This election was like the Vietnamese primary. You see them trying to say, 'I'm more anticommunist that you,' " Ta said. "It's a lot like in the Republican primary, where candidates try to show they are more conservative than the other."

Tran sent a letter written in Vietnamese to voters in the supervisorial district -- on official letterhead from his Assembly office -- questioning Nguyen's alleged ties to Eric Le, president of the Vietnamese Business Assn., which advocates business ties in Vietnam. The group was included in Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet's visit to Dana Point in 2007, which incited protests by 800 Vietnamese Americans -- Nguyen among the demonstrators. Tran believes Le is a "representative and conduit for many of these senior Vietnamese community officials coming from Vietnam."

In a news conference Sunday, Nguyen displayed posters allegedly connecting Tran to another Vietnamese American group that supports business ties with Vietnam, among other accusations.

Tran and Nguyen have both denied the accusations and cite their histories of attending protests and speaking out for human rights in Vietnam.

There are signs that some in the Vietnamese community, even those who harbor deep resentment against communists, are tired of the mudslinging.

"When there are so many Vietnamese elected officials, there should be a sense of pride for the community," said Dung Hoang, 62, of Midway City, an unincorporated island near Little Saigon. "But instead, they are framing each other as communists, and that makes me very distressed. It splits the community."


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