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Janet Nguyen ahead in O.C. race

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Times Staff Writer

A neophyte Vietnamese American city councilwoman took a slim lead Tuesday in the race for the Orange County Board of Supervisors with as many as 3,400 ballots remaining to be counted.

Janet Nguyen, a 30-year-old serving her first term on the Garden Grove City Council, led Garden Grove school board member Trung Nguyen by 52 votes with all precincts reporting in the winner-take-all special election to fill a vacant seat on the board.

Still to be counted were provisional and late absentee ballots, according to the county registrar of voters office.

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The two Vietnamese American candidates garnered nearly as many votes as the six other candidates in the race combined, in part by focusing their turnout efforts on voters in Garden Grove and Westminster.

They also ran aggressive absentee ballot drives that gave them an advantage over candidates who depended on election day turnout at the polls that was expected -- accurately, as it turned out -- to be tepid.

Told of the results at an election night party at the Azteca Restaurant, Nguyen hugged her political mentor, former Orange County board chairman William Steiner, and her husband, and professed herself “overwhelmed” by the results.

She declined to declare outright victory.

Should the results hold, Nguyen will join a small but growing cadre of Vietnamese American elected officials.

They include Van Tran, the California state Assemblyman who, with a Texas state legislator, are the highest-ranking elected Vietnamese Americans in the nation.

“It’s been a growing trend,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange.

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“The history lesson here is that whether it’s the Irish or other groups, ethnic solidarity is a very important source of power in American politics. [Voters] voted for candidates they identified with rather than political parties.”

The race kicked off when Supervisor Lou Correa was elected to the state Senate in November. The district, the most densely populated in the county, covers Santa Ana, Westminster, Garden Grove and unincorporated territory.

Although the race is officially nonpartisan, the county Democratic and Republican parties threw considerable support behind two major candidates in the race, Tom Umberg on the Democratic side and Carlos Bustamante on the Republican.

The Democratic Party endorsed Umberg, although the GOP remained officially neutral.

Still, neither party was able to unite behind a single candidate. Ten hopefuls initially entered the race, and although the number was later reduced to eight, there were still four candidates from each party.

Democrats picked up the seat with the election of Correa in 2004, the only one out of five on the county board that they held. They hoped to keep it despite Republican gains in voter registration in the last year that gave the GOP a 529-voter margin out of more than 200,000 registered to cast ballots.

In Umberg, a former state Assemblyman and deputy drug czar under President Clinton, Democrats had the most recognizable candidate in race.

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He was considered the front-runner for nearly the entire campaign.

In addition to help from the Democratic Party, he received extensive campaign support from public employee unions, particularly sheriff’s deputies, currently in contract negotiations with the county.

Union members campaigned on his behalf and helped turn out voters on election day.

Although Bustamante received considerable Republican endorsements and financial support, his campaign was eclipsed by two Garden Grove candidates, school board member Trung Nguyen and City Councilwoman Janet Nguyen -- unrelated -- who invested heavily in absentee voter drives in the Vietnamese community.

Both candidates had well-funded campaigns that made them competitive with Umberg, with Janet Nguyen relying on more than $200,000 raised from previous campaigns and Trung Nguyen making a personal loan to his campaign of $100,000.

The campaigns were largely conducted through mailers delivered to voters’ homes, some from the candidates, others from independent committees campaigning on their behalf -- or against them.

The mailers largely portrayed each candidate as tough on crime and illegal immigration, and champions of schools.

The biggest controversy over mailers came when the Trung Nguyen campaign superimposed his head on someone else’s body in a photograph to make it appear as though the candidate was standing near Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Janet Nguyen’s campaign seized on the image and questioned whether Trung Nguyen could really campaign on a platform of “honesty, integrity and leadership.”

Trung Nguyen’s campaign variously blamed the alteration on an advertising firm and a volunteer.

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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