By JENNIFER MEDINA
Published: October 14, 2010
SANTA ANA, Calif. The flagging economy came up, of course. So did
the high unemployment rate. But it is not every Congressional debate
that turns on the question of how to improve human rights in Vietnam.
Yet there were Loretta Sanchez, a Latina Democrat, and Van Tran, a
Vietnamese-born Republican, eagerly discussing their credentials in
fighting for human rights in Vietnam on behalf of the voters of
California's 47th Congressional District.
Ms. Sanchez wore the yellow and red colors of the former South
Vietnam flag, a symbol of pride in the large enclave of Vietnamese
refugees here in Orange County. During the debate Wednesday, she
proudly recounted being kicked out of Vietnam during a recent visit
because, as she put it, "I talked to the dissidents." Mr. Tran
dismissed this as just talk.
Soon their focus turned to the question of granting amnesty to
illegal immigrants, with each candidate walking a fine line to avoid
alienating both conservatives and Mexican-American voters. All in
all, it was a kind of tri-cultural debate in a place formerly known
as the land of Richard Nixon and John Wayne.
In this central part of Orange County, once a Republican bastion,
immigrants now make up more than half of the population. For the last
14 years, Ms. Sanchez has been the sole Democrat in the county's
Congressional delegation and, as a daughter of Mexican immigrants, a
potent symbol of power in the predominantly Mexican community. But
she is now facing her toughest battle since she ousted the
conservative Robert K. Dornan, as Republican leaders see Mr. Tran as
their best chance at snatching back the seat.
The race has attracted big names former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani
of New York campaigned with Mr. Tran and former President Bill
Clinton is scheduled to headline a rally for Ms. Sanchez on Friday.
Mr. Tran, a state assemblyman who is a formidable power in the
Vietnamese political community, has managed to amass more than $1
million, he said. The Sanchez campaign declined to release its most
recent fund-raising figures, but in June the campaign had nearly $1.3
million on hand.
Although there has been little public polling, a recent survey by a
conservative group showed Mr. Tran within striking distance of the
incumbent. He is counting on a base of conservative voters whom he
called "anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat and anti-Sanchez" and the
Vietnamese community to propel him to a win next month. Ms. Sanchez
is clearly feeling the pressure, calling him a "failed Sacramento
politician" in the hopes that voters like their state leaders even
less than they like their Washington ones.
"I would never go on some kind of suicide mission," Mr. Tran said in
a recent interview near his office in a part of town known as Little
Saigon. "This area has one of the lowest Congressional turnouts, so
you can put your arms around the coalition relatively easily. A
substantial number of people will cross party lines to vote with
During a September interview with Univision, Ms. Sanchez remarked
that "the Vietnamese" and Republicans were trying to take the seat
from her, a comment that Mr. Tran seized on and that sent an uproar
through the conservative blogosphere. Ms. Sanchez has since said that
she was referring only to Mr. Tran's supporters.
"Yes, those Vietnamese and Republicans who are supporting him are
trying to take the office that's what an election is about," Ms.
Sanchez said. "But to say that I was on a racist rampage is just ridiculous."
After news of Ms. Sanchez's comments surfaced, Mr. Tran said she was
a "trying to create a wedge where there isn't one." He said there had
rarely been tensions between the two communities.
For its part, Ms. Sanchez's campaign bristled at a particularly nasty
Tran campaign mailer, a hefty booklet in Vietnamese that showed
several unflattering photographs of Ms. Sanchez, including one of her
speaking with Ramón Castro, Fidel Castro's oldest brother, in Cuba
a potentially powerful image for those who fled Communism. (Mr. Tran
has also taken to repeatedly using the term "socialist conspiracy"
when referring to Ms. Sanchez's votes for the economic stimulus and
health care bills.)
In a list comparing the candidates, the leaflet described Mr. Tran's
beliefs as "conservative and maintaining traditional Asian values."
It pointed out that Ms. Sanchez was divorced and described her way of
life with a term that roughly translates to "loose" or "carefree."
While the Vietnamese community makes up roughly 9 percent of the vote
here, history has shown that these residents go to the polls in far
larger numbers than their Latino counterparts, who are estimated at
more than 60 percent of registered voters and make up a substantial
part of Ms. Sanchez's base. Her supporters acknowledge that a low
turnout could hand Mr. Tran a victory.
The Vietnamese community here is hardly new refugees began flocking
to Westminster, just six miles west, in the 1970s. But they have come
to political power more slowly.
"The real change is the heightened understanding, the heightened
interest of that community there has been a bump in the numbers of
the Vietnamese in the school board and City Council," said Adam D.
Probolsky, a Republican political strategist. "These communities have
a new sense of empowerment and a new organized effort to elect some
of their own."
Claudia Alvarez, a Santa Ana city councilwoman and supporter of Ms.
Sanchez said it was unfortunate that "two communities are really
fighting over the same pieces of the pie," rather than electing
another immigrant from other parts of the county.
"There is a lot of cynical attitude in the Hispanic community and the
sense that nothing in government matters," Ms. Alvarez said. "My fear
is we are going to lose because of that divide and apathy."