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Vietnamese American politician Van Tran plots a comeback

The men had just finished their thick steaks and were starting to smoke cigars while artichoke hearts warmed on the grill. A plate of mooncakes awaited them nearby.

On a sunny afternoon in the backyard of his home in the hills of Orange, Van Tran plots his political comeback.

Once California's highest-ranking Vietnamese American politician, riding a wave of activism in the immigrant community where he came of age, Tran was bounced to the sidelines in 2010 when a veteran congresswoman, Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), trounced him in a U.S. House race.

Now, nearly three years later, the former state assemblyman has set his sights on a slightly less glamorous office: the State Board of Equalization.

"We will raise whatever it takes to run a credible campaign," Tran says as his 6-year-old son, Alex, runs around the patio, clutching an iPad.

The father of two has gathered his "brain trust" of advisors to help steer him in a contest that, although not a run for Congress, is likely to be a scrappy, expensive battle.

The district seat — one of four in California — covers a huge swath, stretching from Orange County to San Diego and east to the Colorado River. The winner ends up with nearly 9.5 million constituents.

For Tran as well as other announced candidates — Assemblywoman Diane L. Harkey (R-Dana Point ) and state Sen. Mark Wyland (R-Escondido) — the race will take them far beyond their home turf. Tran, a lawyer who has always capitalized on his ties to the huge Vietnamese community in central Orange County, will suddenly be left wooing voters in Riverside and Imperial counties.

Political consultant Richard Temple said that "99% of the people who run are not known by voters. If they have a good story to tell and they know how to tell it well — and if they can raise the resources to back that up — they have a strong chance."

Tran said he never entirely stepped away from politics during his absence as an elected official. While doing consulting work, he helped launch phone-bank campaigns in swing states for the Romney-Ryan presidential ticket in 2012. Staffed with Chinese, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese speakers, it served as the only multilingual project targeting Asian Republicans or undecided Asian voters — one of the greatest untapped voting blocs in the showdown between Mitt Romney and President Obama.

He also signed on as senior advisor to Travis Allen, who, without any elected political experience, defeated Troy Edgar, mayor of Los Alamitos, in the 72nd Assembly District race. Tran recruited crucial Little Saigon votes for Allen.

Tran, who was born in Vietnam and fled with his family just before the fall of Saigon, was the first Vietnamese American to be elected to a state legislature, becoming a model for dozens of fellow immigrants who achieved such roles as county supervisor, judge, school trustee and mayor.

The Board of Equalization's southernmost seat in California is now held by Michelle Park Steel, who is being termed out. She endorsed Harkey long before Tran jumped into the race.

Steel, who was born in South Korea, said she has known Tran since he was in high school.

"I was very impressed when he got elected because his campaign inspired so many Vietnamese Americans to register to vote," she said. "He can follow through."

One of Tran's trademarks is to push volunteers to boost voter registration among immigrants, a strategy that paid huge dividends in a 2007 supervisors race in Orange County. Two largely unknown Vietnamese American candidates clobbered the presumed front-runners backed by the county's Republican and Democratic parties.

Tran again will turn to Little Saigon for backing, as well as traditional Republican sources in the county. But this time he will also look for support from pan-Asians across the state or Vietnamese Americans across the country who might see in him a familiar "coming to America" success story, said Barrett Tetlow, a former district director when Tran served in the Assembly.

With the Board of Equalization, Tran seeks a job that wouldn't require as much travel time away from his children, yet one that focuses on issues that drive him — small business and taxation. The board is a public agency charged with collecting billions of dollars annually in taxes and fees supporting state and local government services. It also plays a significant role in the assessment and administration of property taxes.

"The balance must be between family life and public office," he says, relishing having the chance to swim with his kids and take them to after-school tutoring or Knott's Berry Farm.

Tran remembers friends urging him early this year to consider a national seat, weeks before Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine) announced he wouldn't seek reelection in 2014. That post requires regular commutes to Washington, D.C.

Still, why run again?

"We have the luxury to pick our passions," he says. "And politics is my passion."

anh.do@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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