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LOCAL ELECTIONS / BOARD OF SUPERVISORS

O.C.'s 1st District is a 1st: All Vietnamese contenders

The community's growing influence injects philosophical issues alongside the usual county concerns.

May 29, 2008|My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writer

Political observers called it a "political earthquake" last year when two little-known Vietnamese candidates upstaged a field of contenders -- including a former assemblyman -- for an open supervisor's seat in central Orange County.

A year later, the change in the landscape appears complete. For the first time, all candidates vying for a seat are Vietnamese.

Incumbent Janet Nguyen is being challenged by fellow Republican Dina Nguyen, a Garden Grove councilwoman, and Hoa Van Tran, a political newcomer and the lone Democrat in the race.

"The political establishment now knows that the Vietnamese voter group is a player to be reckoned with," said Lan Nguyen, a trustee of the Garden Grove school board, and a supporter of Dina Nguyen.

(None of the Ngyuens in this story are related.)

The 2007 special election registered the Vietnamese community as a voting force when Janet Nguyen and Trung Nguyen, her chief rival, took nearly half the votes in the 10-candidate field, upsetting party-endorsed candidates. Vietnamese voters make up only a quarter of the electorate in the 1st District.

The supervisor's seat, vacated last year when Lou Correa was elected to the state Senate, includes Santa Ana, Westminster and Garden Grove. The area is heavily Latino and had been controlled in recent years by Democrats until Janet Nguyen's election.

And there has been no rest for Janet Nguyen since. A judge was ultimately needed to decide the winner in the 2007 election that was decided by a three-vote margin. Trung Nguyen challenged the results in court and filed several legal complaints against Janet Nguyen. She has spent much of her brief time in office raising money to counter the legal battles.

"She has had to spend a lot of time dealing with challenges to the election, as opposed to getting ready for reelection," said Dave Gilliard, her campaign consultant.

Nguyen also faced controversy over fundraising early in her term when she sent an e-mail to potential donors asking them to make payments to her lawyer's account to help with mounting legal bills, a move she later conceded was a mistake. She wrongly told donors they could give amounts that exceeded the county's contribution limit.

Her campaign returned $12,500 to donors.

Despite initial struggles, Janet Nguyen's supporters said she seemed to have found her footing for her reelection campaign, having secured the backing of the Orange County Republican Party, as well as other key endorsements.

Even so, Janet Nguyen has faced a tough, and sometimes bitter, campaign. Her chief challenger, Dina Nguyen, has the backing of Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove), the highest-ranking Vietnamese American elected official in the state and something of a political godfather to Vietnamese political hopefuls across the country.

Dina Nguyen is also supported by most of the county's 10 Vietnamese American elected officials.

Both Janet Nguyen and Dina Nguyen have campaigned as staunch conservatives who said they would oppose tax increases and work on lowering the crime rate. The 1st District is regarded by county observers as having been the most neglected of the five districts in the past, with one of the highest crime rates in the county.

Janet Nguyen's campaign cites her abilities to bring in resources. Dina Nguyen's campaign touts her experience as an attorney and an Orange County Superior Court employee.

Hoa Van Tran, a lawyer and Gulf War veteran, said he would push for better healthcare and more parks in the district.

But Tran's campaign has been beset with difficulties in recent weeks. The Orange County Register reported last week that two of Tran's campaign staffers were arrested in connection with a shooting that occurred after a fundraiser. The Democratic Party of Orange County last week considered rescinding Tran's endorsement. The Orange County Young Democrats withdrew its endorsement Tuesday.

All three have spent much of the last few months trying to win voters in Little Saigon, home to most of the county's 150,000 Vietnamese Americans.

In a community where hatred of Vietnam's communist government still runs deep, homeland politics and memories of the Vietnam War have fueled aggressive campaign attacks.

Anticommunist groups based in Little Saigon and community activists have gone on Vietnamese radio and newspapers to accuse Janet Nguyen of accepting campaign contributions from alleged communist sympathizers. Dina Nguyen and Hoa Van Tran's campaigns have cited been fiercely critical of Janet Nguyen, citing the accusations in their campaigns.

Janet Nguyen's chief of staff appeared on Vietnamese radio to deny the accusations.

Her campaign also sent e-mails to supporters in Vietnamese calling the accusations "slander." To soften the blow, the e-mail contained photos of Nguyen participating in anticommunist protests and speaking out for human rights in Vietnam.

"When you have three Vietnamese candidates, the Vietnamese identity is not a distinguishing mark," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

He said the candidate most likely to win would be the one who assembles the largest coalition of voters, in and out of the Vietnamese community.

If none of the candidates wins a majority in the June 3 primary, a runoff will be held in November.

--

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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