Just Nguyen (Win), Baby! — The Candidate and the Scare-Letter Scandal

October 27, 2006



New America Media, Commentary, Quang X. Pham, Oct 25, 2006

Editor’s Note: A Vietnamese American author looks at the Southern California candidate linked to a scandal involving a flyer designed to intimidate Hispanic voters. Former Marine Corps pilot Quang X. Pham is a business consultant and author of “A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey” (Ballantine Books, 2005). Earlier this year he had explored running for Congress as an independent against incumbent Democrat Loretta Sanchez.

tan nguyenORANGE COUNTY, Calif.–His campaign slogan states he’s “not afraid to tell it like it is.” But ex-Democrat-turned-Republican congressional candidate Tan Nguyen (commonly pronounced as “Win”) might want to ditch the phrase. According to polls commissioned by Nguyen, he was actually leading by double digits and well on his way to Washington, D.C., well into his ill-fated campaign.

Such a claim was absurd even before the ruckus over a scare letter sent by Nguyen’s campaign to Hispanic voters in central Orange County sullied his name, the most common surname for Vietnamese. Most recently, state agents raided Nguyen’s campaign office and home shortly before his scheduled press conference. Although computers and files were seized in the search, no charges have been filed with two weeks to go before the general election.

Nguyen, who says he had no knowledge of the controversial mailer, finally appeared before the public and defiantly proclaimed, “I am not going to quit this race and I am going to win this race.”

It’s enough to remind one of the catchphrase, “Just Win Baby!” coined by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis. These days, the 1-5 Raiders have about as good of a chance of winning the next Super Bowl as Nguyen has of becoming a congressman.

Yet the Raiders have winning qualities that Nguyen lacks. Like Nguyen, they carpet-bagged in the early 1980s and moved to Los Angeles. (Nguyen had lost in the 2004 Democratic primary in the district neighboring his current one.) But before the National Football League put head-coaching quotas in place, Davis had already hired a Hispanic and a black coach, both pioneers in their profession. He also put a woman in charge. Through the team’s ups and downs, Raider fans remained loyal because they knew their team and what it stood for.

To defeat five-term incumbent Loretta Sanchez, Republicans need a leader like Al Davis: someone rich, tough and capable of bridging ethnic communities and winning at any (legal) cost.

Of course, like her opponent Nguyen, Sanchez also switched parties after losing an election. Since upsetting fiery “B-1 Bob” Dornan in 1996 and then beating him again two years later, no challenger has come within 20 percentage points of her, even though she hasn’t authored a single piece of significant legislation during a decade in office. “Loretta Sanchez is a disaster, as was Bob Dornan,” writes Steven Greenhut, senior editorial writer of the Orange County Register. “There is no realistic chance that anyone normal will represent that congressional district anytime soon.”

No one really asked Nguyen why he decided to challenge Sanchez. Where does he stand on the hot-button issues? According to his statement in the Orange County Register’s online voter’s guide for the 47th congressional district, Nguyen wants to split Iraq into three countries. “It’ll be their problem from there on. They can behead each other and not Americans,” Nguyen commented. He blames Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty program for today’s immigration problems and opposes any guest-worker programs.

Political observers watched with surprise as Nguyen dumped nearly a half-million of his own money into the primary race and handily thumped opponent Rosie Avila by more than 3,000 votes. Avila, a longtime school district board member endorsed by several county supervisors, didn’t bother to do one mailing. Nguyen has done it mostly by himself, without the support of the local Republican Party. According to his Federal Election Commission filing, he has raised just over $60,000 from individuals. Nearly all of his spending targeted Vietnamese-American voters via direct mail, lawn signs and ethnic media ads.

Christian Collet, an expert on Vietnamese-American politics and currently associate professor of American Politics at Doshisha University in Japan, foresees one outcome. “What we see here is an overzealous, amateur candidate (Tan Nguyen) claiming to represent the community and promising to deliver a bloc of votes. What politicians need to realize is that Vietnamese-American voters are relentlessly independent, only vote as a bloc for candidates whom they know and trust to represent the community and that the process of developing that trust takes a considerable amount of time.”

Yet it remains unclear how many who voted for Nguyen in the GOP primary were Vietnamese Americans.

Despite the denunciations from county, party and state officials from both sides, Nguyen will not quit. His name will remain on the ballot, including the absentee ballots soon to arrive at the registrar’s office. Early returns on election night may reveal whether Nguyen’s fumble — or, as some anti-illegal immigration supporters may see it, his Hail Mary — has worked. In 2002, Republican challenger Jeff Chavez withdrew before the general election but still managed to win 35 percent of the vote.

A new Wall Street Journal poll revealed that voter approval ratings for Congress, whose members worked only 93 days this year while passing no significant bills, has bottomed at 15 percent, the lowest figure in 14 years. It’s a mid-term election already filled with scorching scandals. In such a climate, maybe Nguyen would have been a breath of fresh air.

In the end, it’s likely that Nguyen will come closer than anyone else to beating Sanchez. But there’s no consolation prize in politics — especially when you’ve already switched parties once, lost twice and may face indictment.

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