A Tone of Exclusion : GOP's Grip on County Gives It Little Incentive--or Need--to Reach Out to Ethnic Groups

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When then-Sen. Bob Dole decided to stop in Orange County last March and campaign before a group that included prominent Vietnamese Americans, Quynh Trang Nguyen felt it was a watershed moment of political recognition for members of her community.

But then the Republican presidential candidate launched into a speech supporting English-only initiatives, opposing affirmative action and reminding the crowd they live in the U.S.A. and should always "keep that in mind." Nguyen shook her head and left the event early.

Although views on such subjects differ greatly within ethnic groups, Nguyen walked away that day feeling there was an anti-immigrant tone to Dole's message.

"I was so frustrated," said Nguyen, president of Little Saigon radio and television stations. "But it was a start. . . . It will get better someday."

Perhaps someday the tone will sound more inclusive, but not likely any time soon.

The local GOP has such a controlling grip on Orange County politics that there is little incentive, or need, to reach out and attract significant numbers of minorities into the party's so-called "Big Tent."

Except for occasional registration drives and breakfast get-togethers, ethnic groups have been largely ignored by party leaders, both as voters and as candidates.

And, as Dole's campaign stumping showed, there seems to be no real effort to address the concerns of minorities whose numbers continue to grow in the county, but whose poor turnout on election days makes them an insignificant voting bloc.

"The image of Orange County Republicanism is the rigid, white male conservative who has very little tolerance for women and minorities," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School.

It is an image party leaders have done little to dispel.

By most accounts, the GOP has achieved its greatest relative success among the county's Vietnamese Americans, many of whom believe the party is more anti-Communist in its views than the Democrats. As a result, party leaders don't need to make much of an effort to bring them into the GOP.

Beyond the Vietnamese Americans, however, the party has failed to significantly reach other ethnic groups, particularly Latinos, largely because of philosophical differences on health and welfare assistance, immigration and affirmative action.

Moreover, party leaders say they are unwilling to change their platform just to appeal to minorities.

"We are a philosophically grounded party," Orange County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes said.

Indeed it is.

A new Times Orange County Poll found that local Republicans are overwhelmingly against affirmative action and bilingual education programs--dramatically more so than adults nationwide.

Orange County Republicans also believe illegal immigration is a "major problem" in Southern California, and 45% said in the poll they favor building a wall along the United States and Mexican border.

If those positions offend, party leaders say, so be it.

Minority leaders argue that it is shortsighted of local GOP officials not to reach out to their communities.

"The future of this county is very much in the hands of the Latinos," said John Acosta, a registered Republican and former Santa Ana councilman. "Look around. You'll see many more brown faces than white faces in our schools today. The party is really remiss in not looking at this. They seem to be burying their heads in the sand like they don't want this to be true."

Acosta said GOP leaders have barely acknowledged the Latino community in the county because they are afraid of losing their grip on the party's power structure.

"The good ol' boy system is fearing that the Latinos will take over," he said. "I think they don't want Latinos getting too good of a foothold in the party."

But even Acosta realizes that minorities won't gain so much as a toehold until they start registering and voting in large numbers. By then, it could be too late for Republicans to bring minorities into their camp.

"The [GOP] needs to prove by actions and words that it is all encompassing, that there is room for different shades of attitude," Jeffe said. "If they don't, time may well come when they are no longer the dominant party in Orange County."

But not all Vietnamese Americans or all Latinos hold the same political and social views. Appealing to everybody is impossible.

"Let's not assume there is this cookie cutter of voter behavior for every ethnic group," Jeffe said. "There is great diversity within each ethnic group."

As a result, Fuentes said the Republicans have targeted, and are most successful with, minorities' members who are affluent and business-oriented, with strong religious beliefs against abortion.

Currently, minorities represent more than 35% of the county's 2.4 million residents--a percentage that is expected to grow by the end of the decade. Only 19% of Orange County's registered voters, however, are minorities, according to the 1995 Orange County Annual Survey conducted by UC Irvine.

The Democrats have been more successful than Republicans in attracting new minority voters in Orange County in recent years, but even their numbers are not overly impressive.

From 1992 to 1994, Republicans registered 556 new Latino voters compared to 1,358 for Democrats, according to a survey conducted by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. Republicans registered 314 new Southeast Asian voters compared to 790 for Democrats, the study also found.

Almost twice as many Latinos were registered as Democrats in 1994 than as Republicans: 60,341 Democrats to 32,410 Republicans. But there were more than twice the number of Southeast Asians registered as Republicans that year as Democrats: 10,143 Republicans to 4,355 Democrats.

Local GOP leaders say they are trying to increase minority involvement and have formed various committees devoted to recruitment. But such committees generally meet sporadically and have no money to accomplish their goals.

Alberta Christy, chairwoman of the party's Ethnic Outreach program, said Republicans are becoming more innovative in their effort to attract minorities.

For example, she said, the party has sponsored free citizenship classes to naturalize legal immigrants with the hope that they will register as Republicans when they pass their citizenship tests.

The party does not budget any money for the Ethnic Outreach program and turned the citizenship classes over to a nonprofit agency this year because of costs. Nonetheless, the party still tries to register newly naturalized citizens as Republican once they complete the program.

While the party may make marginal gains in some areas, other efforts are undermined by the GOP's tactics and stances on affirmative action and immigration.

One of the most offensive incidents, minority leaders say, occurred in 1988, when county Republican leaders hired uniformed security guards to police voting places in heavily Latino precincts in Santa Ana. The Republican Party later paid a portion of a settlement worth more than $400,000 to resolve a lawsuit over the incident.

"All their efforts are lost when they support wedge issues that have a negative impact on the Latino community and other minorities," said John Palacio, former director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Orange County. "They rally behind 'us versus them' issues."

That type of division spills over to aspiring minority politicians who say they get no support or encouragement from party leaders to run for office. Only a handful of minority politicians have been elected to local school boards and city councils.

Even fewer have been propelled to higher office. Out of the 30 county, state and federal legislative offices in Orange County, only one is held by a minority--Rep. Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar), a Korean American. And more of his support comes from constituents in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties than from here.

"They almost treat [minorities] as invisible candidates," said Felix Rocha Jr., a trustee of the Orange County Department of Education who unsuccessfully ran against Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) in the March primary. "You can bust your butt and work hard, but the people who actually run these parties don't reach out for you. They're not anxious to let you in."

As a Native American and Latino, Rocha said he was virtually ignored by the party.

"You're not looked at as being different, you're just not being looked at," he said. "They support their own kind. I don't know what that kind is, but I know I'm not it."

One prominent minority member who was seemingly embraced by the party is former County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, who was appointed to the Board of Supervisors by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian in 1986.

While he enjoyed political and financial support of key Orange County Republicans, Vasquez found more support in the state and national parties, which often touted him for statewide office. He was prominently showcased as a podium speaker at the Republican National Convention in 1992.

During his tenure on the Board of Supervisors, Vasquez has said he performed his political duties as an officeholder who also was Latino, rather than as a Latino activist. He resigned his supervisorial seat following the Orange County bankruptcy and is now a vice president at Southern California Edison. He declined to comment for this story.

Party leaders like to point to Westminster Councilman Tony Lam, the nation's first Vietnamese American elected to office, as a symbol of openness to minorities. Lam says the party has supported him with endorsement letters from other elected officials and campaign advice.

"They've always given me moral support," said Lam, who was recently given the Elected Official of the Year award by the party.

But Lam said his allegiance to the GOP and its positions is causing him problems with some leaders in the Vietnamese American community who complain that he is turning his back on the community's needs in order to further his position within the party.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm in between a rock and a hard place," he said. "People in the community say I'm too Americanized, and people in the party sometimes say I'm thinking too much about Little Saigon. It's hard to draw a line between the two."

Lam, who helped bring the Dole campaign through Westminster in March, said he was aware that Dole's campaign speech offended some members of the Vietnamese American community.

But aside from Lam and a few other success stories at the city council level, many minority leaders remain doubtful that the Republican Party will ever make a serious effort to reach out to different groups of people.

As long as the existing GOP power structure continues to have a tight grip in the county, many minority leaders believe there is little hope that the "Big Tent" concept will ever come true.

"The party is really just supporting the 'boys club,' " Acosta said. "You have to be ignorant not to see it happen. I hate to say it, but it's true."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Assessing the Big Tent

In general, Orange County Republicans take more conservative stances on affirmative action, homosexual rights and illegal immigration.

Encouraging Preferences

* Do you agree or disagree with this statement: Women and minorities should receive preference in hiring, promotions and college admissions to make up for pastdiscrimination.

*--*

AMERICANS COUNTY NATIONALLY REPUBLICANS Agree 46% 7% Disagree 50 91

*--*

"Don't know" responses; U.S. 4%, O.C. 2%

Protecting Homosexual Rights

* Do you think homosexuals should get protection under civil rights laws in the way racial minorities and women have been protected, or should homosexuals get no civil rights protection?

*--*

AMERICANS COUNTY NATIONALLY REPUBLICANS Protection 43% 39% No protection 50 53

*--*

"Don't know" responses; U.S. 7%, O.C. 8%

Erecting a Wall

* Please tell me whether you would generally favor or oppose the following step which has been proposed as a way of reducing illegal immigration into the U.S.: erecting a wall along the border with Mexico.

*--*

AMERICANS COUNTY NATIONALLY REPUBLICANS Favor 35% 45% Oppose 62 50

*--*

"Don't know responses: U.S. 3%, O.C. 5%

Views on Immigration

* How big a problem is the amount of illegal (and legal) immigration into this country? Is it a:

*--*

ILLEGAL LEGAL Americans County Americans County Nationally Republicans Nationally Republicans Major problem 63% 65% 21% 22% Moderate problem 21 25 24 26 Minor problem 10 8 21 18 Not a problem 3 1 28 31 Don't know 3 1 6 3

*--*

Source: Times Orange County Poll; 1995 Washington Post poll; 1995 Los Angeles Times poll; 1995 Time / CNN Poll; 1996 Los Angeles Times Poll

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