Nguyen’s letter draws voters to polls

Times Staff Writers

The racially charged letter was succinct: about a dozen sentences in Spanish signed with a nom de plume. But its message pushed Orange County voters to polling stations Tuesday to prop up or condemn a Republican congressional longshot whose campaign warned immigrants not to vote.

Once a little-known Vietnamese immigrant who had taken on the difficult task of running against popular Democratic incumbent Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Tan Nguyen enraged the GOP establishment and some voters last month when his campaign sent the provocative letter to 14,000 Democratic voters with Spanish surnames.

Signed by the phantom activist “Sergio Ramirez,” the letter, which immediately prompted investigations into possible voting rights violations, also falsely said that the state had developed a tracking system that would allow new Latino voters’ names to be handed over to anti-immigrant groups.

On Tuesday, federal and county authorities monitored voting in the 47th District, which includes parts of Fullerton, Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. One-third of its registered voters are Latino, one-fifth are Asian and more inclined to favor Sanchez, the sole Democrat in the county’s congressional delegation.

And if the letter was intended to chill the vote among immigrants, it appeared to have the opposite effect in the ethnically diverse district.


Maria Luisa Jimenez, 32, said she was scared to vote after opening the Nguyen campaign letter. A Mexican immigrant who became a U.S. citizen two years ago, she said the correspondence dominated conversation in her kitchen and at her child’s school in Santa Ana. When she realized it was a fake, “it made me think that it’s my right to vote and I should use it,” she said after casting her ballot Tuesday.

Nguyen, who has made halting illegal immigration a campaign centerpiece, has blamed the letter on an unidentified staffer, whom the candidate said he fired -- then rehired. Brushing off calls from GOP leaders, including the governor, to quit, a defiant Nguyen told reporters after the scandal broke: “I am innocent, and there is no way in hell I am going to withdraw.”

At a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Garden Grove, Tri Nguyen, 64, said he cared little about the letter -- the Republican candidate’s ties to the Vietnamese community had already locked in his vote. “We’re the underdog and we have to have our people to represent us, to voice our opinions on what we’re not able to say,” Nguyen said.

A painter who is not related to Tan Nguyen, he explained: “Politics is dirty, and that’s just how it is during this time of year. Tan was just telling the truth about illegal immigration.”

The letter spurred another man, Joseph Phan, 56, to trek to the polls so he could back Nguyen -- only to learn that he couldn’t, because he was not registered to vote. “I have trust in him, even if he has no experience,” said Phan. “We have community leaders who can help him learn and grow. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

In Santa Ana, Nguyen’s detractors fanned out. More than 100 union workers knocked on doors, prodding naturalized U.S. citizens to vote. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund had earlier mailed its own fliers, directing voters to polling stations. Spanish-language radio shows, newspapers and television shows reassured voters that the letter’s contents were false.

“We told people this was a method of intimidation and that we shouldn’t be stopped,” said Eduardo Sotelo, a radio personality on Los Angeles’ La Nueva 101.9 FM known as “El Piolin,” or Tweety Bird. “We also said it was important for each listener to get a neighbor, a workmate or friend to vote as well.”

For some, the letter appeared to be another example of Orange County politics inflaming racial tensions. In 1988, the local GOP hired uniformed poll guards to stand in Latino neighborhoods with signs that read: “Non-Citizens Can’t Vote.” When Sanchez first won the district in 1996, the then-incumbent accused a Latino civil rights group of signing up illegal immigrants to vote.

“But you know what the attitude is [now]?” said Joe Solis, who walked precincts before Tuesday’s vote for a local chapter of the Southern California International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. “Mexicans around here are thinking: ‘Go ahead, throw another rock at me. You missed.’ ”

That’s how Veronica Acosta, 31, who has lived in the United States for a decade and recently became a citizen, ended up voting for the first time. She had tossed the Nguyen campaign letter in the trash, convinced it was fraudulent.

“But it was insulting,” she said. “It made me feel more that I have to vote.”