Candidates in the wide-open race for Loretta Sanchez’s U.S. House seat gathered Saturday for their first debate, with all four Democrats working to establish their progressive credentials in one of the county’s few decidedly blue congressional districts.

There were few disagreements among the participants vying for the 46th District seat, who are: former state senators Lou Correa and Joe Dunn, Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen and Anaheim Councilman Jordan Brandman.

The district covers Santa Ana, Anaheim, and parts of Garden Grove and Orange, and is up for grabs because Sanchez is forfeiting her seat to run for the U.S. Senate. No Republicans are in the race as Democrats have a 20-point voter registration advantage.

Dunn, who is considered a front-runner along with Correa, touted his claim to fame as the state senator who led the fight against corporate energy behemoths during the state’s energy crisis in the early 2000s.

When every other Democratic legislator voted to use “your tax dollars to buy our way out of the energy crisis, I said no.” Dunn said. “Which candidates have the experiences and have proven time and time again that they are always on the line for you? I have done that.”

Correa, meanwhile, pointed to his record of supporting minimum wage increases, among other stances, during his 14 years in the state Legislature.

And he said he fought for “our fair share [of state tax dollars] for Central Orange County,” leading to him being shunned and punished in Sacramento.

“I’m just a kid from the hood who got lucky,” he said, adding that he’s “trying to show that new generation that folks like me can move out of the neighborhoods” and “live the American Dream.”

Nguyen, who works as a union organizer, spoke energetically about the need to rein in corporate influence over the American political system.

A handful of people are getting “filthy rich while families work two, three maybe four jobs just to get by. It’s not right,” he said in advocating for a minimum wage hike with automatic increases tied to inflation.

The people “need a government that listens and puts their interests” ahead of “big corporations,” Nguyen said.

And Brandman promised to be a “constant advocate” for progressive policies and work with Republicans.

“It is tragic that the Republican majority will not let us take a vote on” a minimum wage increase, he said. “I will do my very best as your Congress member to work across the aisle” to convince Republicans that this is the right thing to do.

There was largely unanimous agreement on several high-profile policy issues that resonate locally. For example, all said they support birthright citizenship for children of immigrants, and better mental health and drug treatment support for at-risk youth and recently-released prisoners.

There was also agreement on national issues, including: the need to address climate change; supporting a federal minimum wage increase; supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; tighter regulation of Wall Street; and the creation of a universal publicly-funded health system.

One of the few areas of disagreement was on legalizing medical marijuana, with Nguyen and Brandman quickly endorsing legalization and Correa and Dunn taking a more cautious approach.

“The time has come” for legalization, Brandman said.  “How much longer are we going to deal with this issue and have people go to jail for possession of marijuana?”

But Correa said he grew up in a neighborhood with lots of alcoholism and heroin use, which has made him concerned about how to keep kids “out of harm’s way.”

“I have serious concerns with the full legalization of marijuana,” he said.

Dunn said he has a similar view. Legalization is “coming, there’s no question about that,” he said, but the California has to make sure it’s done “the right way.”

Nguyen, meanwhile, said he’s for legalization, and that revenue generated through marijuana taxes should be invested in the neighborhoods where people have been “fed into the prison system.”

Correa raised eyebrows by joining the other candidates in supporting universal health care, with some Democratic activists noting that Correa’s position appeared to stand in contrast to his time in Sacramento, where he voted against universal healthcare, citing the cost and the need for a federal solution.

Correa has picked up endorsements from several state-level elected officials, as well as Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-Norwalk), Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez and Santa Ana Unified school board members John Palacio and Valerie Amezcua.

Brandman is endorsed by former state Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), former county Democratic Party Chair Frank Barbaro, and a host of local school board members.

Brandman was also endorsed by major local Republican elected officials and conservative political groups in his bid for his current City Council seat in 2012.  His campaign sent out a mailer touting the endorsements and quoting one of Brandman’s chief political mentors, Republican Anaheim former-mayor-turned-lobbyist Curt Pringle.

Dunn and Nguyen’s websites don’t have any endorsements listed.

Saturday’s debate was hosted by the Orange County chapters of two of the nation’s oldest civil rights groups: the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Brandman was endorsed by the county Republican Party.  We regret the error.

You can contact Nick Gerda at, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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