While name recognition, campaign cash, endorsements and support from both business and union interests all favor former State Senator Lou Correa in the race to fill an open seat for First District Supervisor, it will likely be voter turnout — specifically, Vietnamese turnout — that will determine who wins the seat in Tuesday’s special election.
Five candidates, plus one write-in candidate, are vying for votes in Orange County’s dense and heavily immigrant First District, which includes the cities of Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Fountain Valley and Westminster.
The two frontrunners are Correa, a Democrat, and former Garden Grove City Councilman Andrew Do, a Republican who abruptly disappeared from public life before returning, months ago, to serve as then-Supervisor Janet Nguyen’s chief of staff.
With the tepid voter turnout that usually accompanies special elections and expected low voter turnout among Latinos, Republicans are anxiously awaiting to see if Vietnamese ballots can win the seat.
Do is competing with two other Vietnamese candidates, Garden Grove councilman Christopher Phan, and Chuyen Van Nguyen, a staffer for former State Sen. Joe Dunn, who is also on the board of directors of Voice of OC.
Although Correa has never gone head-to-head with an Asian candidate, he was elected to the same county supervisor seat in 2004, three times to the State Assembly and twice to the State Senate by a similar swath of district voters.
Correa also entered the race with the greatest fundraising edge, carrying over nearly $150,000 from previous campaigns plus an additional $46,000 raised during this race.
Do, a Garden Grove city councilman who was critical to former Supervisor Janet Nguyen’s campaign for Supervisor in 2006, served as her chief of staff from 2008 until abruptly resigning in 2010.
A year later, Do also resigned from the city council, citing a need to focus on his struggling business, a Lee’s Sandwiches franchise co-owned by Janet Nguyen’s husband, Tom Bonikowski.
Do disappeared from public life for a few years before returning as Janet Nguyen’s chief of staff in May 2014.
Since Nguyen’s successful election to the State Senate, Do has received the support of several of her allies, including the state and county Republican Party, and Republican elected officials like House Reps. Ed Royce, Dana Rohrabacher and Mimi Walters; and State Sen. Patricia Bates.
With the help of high-profile party endorsements, Do has raised more than $58,000 for the short campaign.
Do has billed his experience as Nguyen’s chief of staff as crucial to maintaining continuity for the first district and an aggressive presence for services that benefit Vietnamese-Americans on the Board of Supervisors.
Last week controversy erupted over the firing of two county employees from the County Community Services Center in Westminster, with Do and Nguyen taking to Vietnamese radio to address the employees’ dismissal.
Do and Nguyen warned listeners about impending plans to close of the Westminster facility, urging them to vote for Do in order to preserve a Vietnamese American presence on the Board.
Sen. Nguyen also asked listeners not to split the vote for two other Vietnamese candidates.
County officials said there were no plans to close the facility and confirmed the employees were dismissed but would not say why. Sources confirmed with Voice of OC that the employees were politicking on behalf of Do.
Meanwhile, Phan, a first-term Garden Grove city councilman, has been running a modest but steady campaign for the seat since July, taking eight months off work as a deputy district attorney in order to conduct his mostly self-financed campaign.
At a candidates’ forum at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach, Phan pledged to promote transparency and an open door policy, pointing to his past service in the U.S. Navy as a testament to his ethical compass.
Although he unsuccessfully sought the county Republican Party endorsement, Phan has said he won’t limit his views to party platforms, pointing to a party pledge not to accept campaign donations from unions.
A third Vietnamese candidate, VNA-TV anchor Chuyen Van Nguyen, has never held elected office but has been a community activist since coming to Orange County in 1978.
While Nguyen – who is a well-known and longstanding activist in the Vietnamese community – acknowledges early speculation casting him as a candidate recruited to split Vietnamese votes, he says he’s a legitimate candidate running on his longstanding reputation in the community.
Nguyen worked for former Democratic State Sen. Joe Dunn as a community liaison until 2006. He prides himself on representing the interests of working class Vietnamese, including stints working for UFCW Local 324 in Buena Park and as a union steward for workers at a company manufacturing aircraft windshields in Garden Grove.
“The image of a powerful community or a high-achieving community, those are good things. But behind the scenes there are still a lot of people struggling,” Nguyen said.
Like Phan, Nguyen is almost entirely self-funded, preferring campaign signs over newspaper ads. At a candidates’ forum earlier this month, he pitched issues with a focus on working class families, such as creating circular bus routes for popular corridors in Little Saigon and downtown Santa Ana, to cut down on wait times and bus fare.
Two other perennial candidates have also participated in debates: Lupe Morfin-Moreno, an anti-immigration activist and Health Care Agency employee, and Mark I. Lopez, a write-in candidate who ran for Santa Ana mayor in November.
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