A Latino-Vietnamese “Race War” in Orange County? It’s Just Politics

And Democrat Loretta Sanchez is in the fight of her political life.

By Julianne Hing Oct 18, 2010

With Election Day just weeks away, every day is another opportunity to catch a campaigning politician making an embarrassing and inarticulate comment. The moments, invariably memorialized on YouTube, either go quietly into the vast archives of political gaffes, or they’re remembered as the kinds of mistakes that cost politicians’ their seats.

Orange County, Calif., Democrat Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who took to Univision last month to warn Latino voters that "the Vietnamese and Republicans" were coming after a Latino seat, may be considering both possibilities at the moment.

On Sept. 19, Loretta Sanchez said on Univision’s Al Punto:

The Vietnamese and the Republicans are, with an intensity, trying to take this seat from which we have done so much for our community–to take this seat and give it to this Van Tran, who is very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic.

Sanchez meant to fire up her base of Latino voters, which she desperately needs to win–California’s 47th Congressional District is 65 percent Latino and 14 percent Asian American, but Asian Americans have a higher turnout than Latinos. The remark, however, has now gotten Sanchez in trouble with the rest of the country, and fueled excited rumors that this is the election year Republicans will finally oust her. Tran accused her of starting a "race war."

Stupid comments aside, the Sanchez-Tran race is notable because it features two candidates of color from a rapidly changing California suburb with large immigrant populations. Ever since Sanchez ousted firebrand Republican Bob Dornan in 1996, the district has been a tiny Democratic island amidst a sea of red. Democrats make up 47 percent of the district’s registered voters, and Republicans are 31 percent. The district voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in 2008, but also for Prop 8, and it was a reliable bloc of voters for President Bush in 2000 and 2004.

While Orange County’s Vietnamese voters–many of whom arrived in the country 35 years ago as refugees from a Communist regime–are reliable social conservatives, neither Latinos nor Vietnamese-American voters cast ballots strictly along racial lines. Everyone wants to know if Sanchez’s Vietnamese supporters will hang around after her recent comments, but local politics are rarely that simple. Sanchez has worked hard over the last 14 years to build a relationship with the Vietnamese community. During a debate between Sanchez and Tran last Wednesday, the two discussed the economy and immigration, of course, but also spent time boasting about their individual records defending human rights in Vietnam.

Even without all the excited talk of a brewing race war in Orange County, Sanchez already faced the same kind of tough campaign that incumbents across the country are battling this year. Voters of all races are anxious about the economy and want incumbents to share their pain. Though Sanchez has won re-election by wide margins since taking Dornan’s seat in 1996, recent polls put her ahead of Tran by just a few points. The Republican National Committee called the Sanchez-Tran race a "top 10" for the party.

For his part, Tran quickly pounced on Sanchez’s comment and hoped to rile up his own base with it. It wasn’t until Sanchez’s remarks made it to conservative blogs that word of the controversy got to the rest of the country.

Sanchez was forced to issue a response:

During the interview, Loretta was referencing those in the Vietnamese community who are supporting her opponent. She continues to be grateful that her Vietnamese-American constituents have entrusted her to represent their values and priorities.

Loretta’s message to all of her constituents is the same. She is focused on rebuilding our local economy, keeping our neighborhoods safe, and ensuring all of her constituents have access to quality and affordable health care. These are the issues that matter to her entire community.

The Japanese American Citizens League, the nation’s oldest Asian-American civil rights organization, issued its own statement, criticizing Sanchez for her remarks. "The use of racial rhetoric has no place in a political campaign," said JACL national director Floyd Mori. "Rep. Sanchez’s use of a broad stroke to characterize the intent of the entire Vietnamese community fails to recognize the diversity of thought that exists in every community."

Sanchez later said that she was only referring to Vietnamese voters who supported Tran. "If somebody misunderstood the words or if I was inarticulate, then I offer an apology for that. But for him to call me a racist, that’s just not true," Sanchez said. Tran responded by cutting a video called "Well, She Almost Apologized…" and again asked Sanchez to stop her "race-baiting."

Tran is a Vietnamese immigrant who came to the country as a refugee at the age of 10. He has been Tea Party-approved, and told the OC Register earlier this year that he supports Arizona’s SB 1070. And the OC Weekly has compiled a list of Tran’s own race-baiting allies, and cited his effort "to court the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, the most noxious of OC’s many certified hate groups." Still, both Tran and Sanchez go to great pains to appear moderate for the historically conservative region, which has seen huge demographic changes with the influx of Latino and Southeast Asian immigrants. (Tran also said that he thinks creating and enforcing immigration policy is strictly a federal responsibility.)

Republicans have put a lot of energy behind Tran this time around. Last week, Rudy Giuliani arrived in Westminster to back Tran, and scolded Sanchez for trying to start an "ethnic conflict" in Orange County. Sarah Palin was scheduled to appear in Anaheim over the weekend for a fundraiser. And Democrats have responded by sending Bill Clinton to Santa Ana. He was in California this weekend to stump for Sanchez and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Jerry Brown.