Half the candidates for Loretta Sanchez’s soon-to-be vacant U.S. House seat aired their views during a forum Thursday night before a sometimes raucous and impatient crowd.

About 150 residents came out for the 46th U.S. Congressional District candidates forum, held at Santa Ana College’s Phillips Hall Theatre. The event was hosted by a group of progressive community activists and moderated by Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr.

Candidates who attended  — former state Sen. Joe Dunn, Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen, Irvine Councilwoman Lynn Schott and businessman Louie Contreras — fielded questions from a panel that included: Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities Campaign Coordinator Ana Urzua; local high school teacher Benjamin Vasquez; RAIZ activist Carlos Perea; local youth leader Sarahi Guerrero; and DeColores Queer OC activist Roberto Carlos Herrera.

Among the candidates missing were Nancy Trinidad Marin, Rudy Gaona, Bob Peterson and former state Sen. Lou Correa, a likely frontrunner who “failed to respond” to the forum invitation, according to Laura Kanter, one of the event hosts and a staffer at LGBT Center OC. Kanter announced Correa’s snub at the outset of the forum, drawing loud boos from the audience.

The audience’s show of disdain was a preview of things to come. Several times members of the audience scolded candidates for not answering yes or no to yes or no questions, and in some instances berated the Republican candidates when they expressed conservative opinions on issues like abortion and immigration.

Santana also expressed impatience with the candidates. When Schott tried to answer a question about whether the candidates would support local police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by reading her detailed plan for immigration reform, Santana cut her off.

Although the candidates on stage consisted of two progressive Democrats and two conservative Republicans, big differences in their styles, record and approach quickly became apparent.

Nguyen cast himself as a fiery young activist looking to hold politicians accountable, a role he’s taken on since his years as a college student rally organizer. He pointed out that he’s fought along side Santa Ana activists for community benefits agreements with developers, and that he stood in front of Santa Ana Jail with DeColores, calling for an end to ICE’s incarceration of undocumented transgender immigrants at the city facility.

And in response to a question about what elected officials could do in response to incidents like Orange County Board of Education Trustee Robert Hammond’s reference to gays as “sodomites” and questioning an employee’s sexual orientation, Nguyen said he would “call them out” and “hold them accountable” through actions like boycotts.

Meanwhile, Dunn billed himself as the anti-Correa, the only candidate going for the seat who has been in the political trenches and had the courage to take on powerful interests for the benefit of residents. He also highlighted his record as a lawyer fighting industries like the tobacco companies.

With Correa absent, Dunn repeatedly took shots at the ex-state senator. Dunn pointed out that Correa voted against every proposed minimum wage increase, while he voted for them. He also noted that Correa had a B+ from the National Rife Association, but Dunn had an F, a score that would play well with the largely progressive crowd. Dunn also said he brought legislation to go after predatory lenders, but that Correa opposed it.

“I’ve taken on those fights, time after time, and at great political risk,” Dunn said.

Schott presented herself as the right “balance” who would offer the “sound voice this community needs” in the nation’s capitol. She didn’t hide from conservative views – such as her support for police collaborating with ICE — but she also pointed out that she wouldn’t go to the extremes some have proposed, such as deporting the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who reside in the country.

On the issue of charter schools, Schott had a sharp exchange with Nguyen, who argued that pulling students out of public schools hurt the public education system because it takes away funding. Nguyen supported a ban on charter schools.

Schott said she wanted to give parents options when they feel their school is failing their kids, while still trying to fix the problem with the public school.

“Banning things is not what we do in America,” Schott said.

And Contreras touted himself as a firm backer of constitutional principles like the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment, which he said is paramount to preserving American freedoms. He said he was also against using tax money to fund abortion, which he said is opposed by the Constitution’s guarantees on life, and he said he wanted to hold the line on immigration.

He said that last year there was a record 41.2 million immigrants in the U.S., undocumented or otherwise.

“Our current immigration policies are unsustainable, we all need to admit that,” Contreras said.

There will be a primary election for the Congressional seat on June 7, with the top two candidates to face each other in a runoff in the November general election.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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