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No matter what happens at the polls this November, 2016 will go down as the year the political process in Orange County opened up to a more diverse group of players.
As cities and school districts throughout the county have transitioned to district elections, young minority millennials have played key roles in establishing the maps that will determine how communities are represented on city councils and school boards.
In Anaheim, 24-year-old substitute teacher Oscar Reyes was the front man for the so-called “People’s Map,” a district map that a coalition of advocacy groups and organizers successfully pushed through the city council.
Jeanette Vasquez, a 28-year-old grade school teacher who is now running for the board of the Fullerton Elementary School District, was the face of a district map that received overwhelming support from the community. The Fullerton City Council ended up selecting a map favored by the city’s business interests, but that decision is being challenged in court.
And the Garden Grove City Council ultimately selected a map submitted by 25-year-old Kim Nguyen, who is half-Mexican and half-Vietnamese, and running for a council seat.
But one constant in all these races has sparked controversy – a Democratic Party operative named Claudio Gallegos, a 39-year-old legal assistant who works in his free time as a political consultant and demographer. He has played a key role in creating district maps for a number of jurisdictions, including Anaheim, Fullerton and Garden Grove.
What’s become controversial, particularly in Garden Grove, is whether the public is getting an accurate picture of the extent of Gallegos’ role in drawing the map.
After the “People’s Map” was adopted in Anaheim, Gallegos openly admitted to drawing it for Reyes. But in Garden Grove, Nguyen has claimed sole authorship of the district map and has made it the centerpiece of her council campaign. And Gallegos is her campaign manager.
Nguyen’s opponents, as well as other residents who say they aren’t necessarily against Nguyen, aren’t shy about voicing their suspicions about her claim.
“It has been my opinion for some time that Kim was getting help from somewhere. Also, I have heard that Claudio was active in the mapping process on behalf of outside interests,” said Bert Ashland, a Republican Party consultant and resident who opposed Nguyen’s map.
To buttress their case, Ashland and others point to the fact that Nguyen is a newcomer to city government who did not become involved in local issues until she began attending community meetings about the district maps with a draft of her map ready.
They also point to her limited political experience, as an intern and volunteer for former State Sen. Lou Correa, who is now running for the 46th U.S. Congressional District seat. There is open speculation that Nguyen was hand-picked for the council seat by Correa.
Both Nguyen and Gallegos have rejected those claims as the product of a heated and racially charged mapping process where many have been quick to paint Nguyen as a political crony, rather than a young person interested in representing her community.
“She really deserves so much credit for making all that happen. She pulled off a unanimous votes from council members who hate each other’s guts,” Gallegos said. “[Garden Grove calls itself] the city of youth and ambition, but someone young and ambitious shows up and let’s turn them down? That seems hypocritical.”
A Convincing Narrative
Nguyen’s story is a compelling one. The daughter of a Mexican mother and Vietnamese father, her heritage represents the city’s unique ethnic mix. She is also first generation college student and has worked as a barista, tutor and resident assistant to put herself through school at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Nguyen said she first became interested in the drawing of district maps while watching the process unfold in Anaheim. She said she downloaded the mapping kit on the Garden Grove city website and drew a draft of a map. Having met Gallegos a year earlier, she said she approached him for help.
“He was involved and I sought his advice but I am the author of the map,” said Nguyen. “And it’s no different than the demographer who presented the map [to residents] and came back with a different one.”
Gallegos said he was impressed by what Nguyen had drawn and became involved in part because he felt he could lend additional credibility to her map.
“I’m seen as an authority on the issue…people might be like, ‘who are you’ [to Kim], but they would listen to me,” Gallegos said. “Even I, when she called me – I knew her, she seemed nice, but I thought, ‘let’s see the damage.’”
Nguyen’s map was heavily opposed by members of the Garden Grove Neighborhood Association and other residents because, from their perspective, it divides a core neighborhood that has been the focal point for community organizing for more than a decade.
Furthermore, many also felt Nguyen’s map was an attempt by Vietnamese-American political interests to maintain their citywide influence at the expense of other long-standing neighborhoods, in part because Nguyen’s coalition did not back a compromise map that was created to accommodate their concerns.
The District 6 race has also divided Democrats. They are torn between Nguyen — who has been endorsed by Correa, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, state Assemblyman Tom Daly — and her opponent Rickk Montoya, a dispatcher for the Los Angeles Police Department and the plaintiff in the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit that forced the transition to district elections.
Montoya received the Orange County Democratic Party’s endorsement.
Nguyen sees the suspicion about her candidacy as stemming from a process she felt was saturated in racist rhetoric and a bias against younger residents.
She cited a public hearing where residents opposing her map questioned how many of those in support of Nguyen’s were Garden Grove residents, and began stating their home address and years of residence for the record.
“Everyone says, ‘you need to get more involved,’ but the second I got involved, people said, ‘you are coming out of nowhere,’” Nguyen said. “I’m 25 – when was I supposed to get engaged, between trying to get a job and stabilize my life? I was limited in what I could do – but I am getting involved now so I don’t see why it’s such a big issue.”
Aria Ghafari, a former civic engagement organizer with the Orange County Community Congregation Organization, said similar questions were raised in Fullerton when residents, especially younger ones, became involved in the mapping process.
“The bottom line is that young people, they’re guilty of the fact that they’re just running,” said Ghafari. “As soon as a twenty-something-year-old tries to get involved in something as important as this, they can’t possibly be legitimate and they are controlled by [someone else].”
“They’re not kids they’re leaders in their community….and people just resent that and are afraid of it,” Ghafari said.
“It’s a very important election, what with adding four new council members – it’s going to be necessary to have a lot of invested people, people who have been working and dealing with the city for years,” Montoya said. “To find out that the only contribution that she’s given didn’t actually happen is pretty disappointing.”
He added: “I don’t think anyone is attacking her because of her [youth or] ambition, but her credibility and commitment to the city, if she’s running on something that isn’t true.”
Contact Thy Vo at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.