Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez found herself in hot water this week after she said in a Spanish-language interview that "the Vietnamese" and Republicans were trying to take control of her seat.
Sanchez, who is up for reelection, was put on the defensive after her main opponent, Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove), a Vietnamese American, jumped on the issue and called her statements "offensive" and "divisive."
The tiff highlights the political dichotomy of central Orange County, where two big voting blocs are Latinos and Vietnamese.
In an interview last week on Univision, a nationally broadcast Spanish-language television network, Sanchez said in Spanish: "The Vietnamese and the Republicans are — with intensity — trying to take away this seat, this seat for which we have already done so much for our community. [Taking] this seat from us and [giving] it to this Van Tran, who's very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic."
Her campaign released a statement saying Sanchez was referring to "those in the Vietnamese community who are supporting her opponent."
Sanchez has worked for years to shore up support from Vietnamese Americans, who make up a sizable portion of her constituents. She attends Vietnamese festivals wearing traditional ao dai tunics and is outspoken about human rights abuses and political freedom in Vietnam, an issue dear to the hearts of Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, which has the largest population of Vietnamese in the country.
Such positions have earned the Democratic congresswoman support from many Vietnamese Americans, who are traditionally right-leaning.
Sanchez is facing her toughest reelection race in years against Tran, the highest-ranking Vietnamese American politician in California and somewhat of a kingmaker in Little Saigon.
Tran said he believes her statements will damage her standing in the Vietnamese community. In an interview, he characterized Sanchez's remarks as a "racial rampage."
"This is a mischaracterization that there is an alleged wedge between the Vietnamese and Latino community," he said.
Tran wrote a letter to Sanchez's office asking for an apology for her comments. "With such a diverse immigrant population that call central Orange County home, you should know better than stoking the flames of racial division in our community," he wrote.
The 47th Congressional District, which encompasses parts of Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Anaheim, has the only House seat held by a Democrat in Orange County. Sanchez has been in the post since 1997.
About 44% of voters in the district are Latino, and 18% are Asian, mostly Vietnamese, according to the California Target Book, a nonpartisan reference work that tracks legislative and congressional races.
It remains to be seen what the reaction to Sanchez's statements will be in the Vietnamese community. The remarks were highlighted on several conservative blogs such as Hot Air and Andrew Breitbart's network, but news of them has taken longer to reach Little Saigon.
Tran attributes this to the statements' being somewhat lost in translation, having to be translated first from Spanish to English, and then to Vietnamese. On Friday, an article in the largest Vietnamese language newspaper, Nguoi Viet, reported the controversy.
This is not the first time a campaign for this congressional seat has seen controversy along racial lines. Just weeks before the 2006 election, Republican candidate Tan Nguyen's staff sent letters to 14,000 voters with Spanish surnames saying immigrants were not allowed to vote and warning them of legal consequences if they did.