Assembly race casts light — and heat — on candidate with Mideast roots

At a recent fundraiser for Democratic state Assembly candidate Phu Nguyen, tables at the Santa Ana restaurant featured signs recognizing various sectors of the community. Vietnamese. Korean American. School employees.

“Arab American Community,” read a placard at another table.

Though the table at Emerald Bay Restaurant was only partially filled with Arab Americans, it underscored an unusual twist in a state Assembly race in central Orange County — a fight between a Vietnamese candidate trying to woo the Arab American vote and a well-known city mayor accused of denying his Egyptian heritage.

The 68th Assembly District takes in a diverse stretch of geography, reaching from wealthy Newport Beach to the bustling streets of Little Saigon to a commercial neighborhood in Anaheim known unofficially as Little Arabia. The seat is being vacated by Assemblyman Van Tran, now running for Congress against Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove).

The accusation against Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, a Republican who has a reputation for talking tough about cracking down on illegal immigrants, stems from a blog post he wrote more than two years ago objecting to being characterized as Arab American.

“My father, though born in Egypt and with an Arabic name, was greatly influenced by European culture… He was also raised as a Christian in a Coptic Church as opposed to a Muslim,” Mansoor wrote on his blog at the time, noting that his mother grew up in Europe. “Swedish culture was more prevalent in our home than Middle Eastern culture.”

The old blog post has fueled a campaign by Arab American activists and Nguyen supporters against the “self-hating Mansoor.” In one e-mail about Nguyen’s fundraiser, community activist Rashad al-Dabbagh urged people to “defeat racist Allan Mansoor!!!”

“It’s offensive that he’s denying his own heritage,” al-Dabbagh said. “If Barack Obama said I’m white because my mom is white, what would the African American community do, would they be offended by that?”

Mansoor said the debate over his heritage is nothing more than a diversion from more pressing issues like taxes, education and illegal immigration.

But some local members of the Arab American community don’t see it that way and hope to use the Assembly race to anger Arabs enough to vote against him. The hope is that indignation — if not civic pride — will push the customarily uninvolved Arab community to become more politically active. The community is often more absorbed in the day-to-day dramas in the Middle East than local politics.

Rohnda Ammouri, a campaign consultant in Los Angeles, said politicians don’t feel the need to recognize the Arab community because there is little political gain.

“The countries that most Arabs come from are not democratic, they’re authoritarian, so they don’t utilize that right to vote,” she said.

Al-Dabbagh admits getting compatriots to take an interest in a state Assembly race — much less create a voting bloc — might be difficult, and before Nguyen’s fundraiser he said he would have been satisfied if even five Arabs attended, even though he sent out a mass appeal to more than 1,600 Arab members in Southern California.

Nguyen, who has said publicly that he supports a Little Arabia designation in a part of Anaheim, denied that he is intentionally trying to capitalize on the Arab issue.

“The Arab community didn’t like that he went out of his way to disavow his roots and some of them contacted me about it and wanted to support my campaign,” Nguyen said. “Allan Mansoor will alienate many ethnic groups within the community.”

Jason Roe, Mansoor’s campaign consultant, said the controversy was silly and fabricated, and that his client had frequently brought up his heritage in their discussions. But Mansoor has also been clear that he doesn’t believe in being a hyphenated American, Roe said.

“Why do they want to dictate what I call myself,” Mansoor said. “I’m an American plain and simple and I’m proud of my family’s heritage.”

Mansoor, who noted that his mother cooked Middle Eastern food when he and his brothers were growing up, said he is reaching out to everyone and that his door is always open.

Mansoor and Nguyen recently agreed to speak at a September meeting of the Orange County chapter of the Network of Arab-American Professionals.

In the August issue of the Independent Monitor, an Anaheim-based Arab newspaper, publisher Stephen Mashney compared Mansoor’s perceived ethnicity slight to biblical proportions: "… Just like Peter and Judas denied Christ. Peter repented and went to heaven. Will Mansoor repent and stop denying his Arabic heritage?!”

Mashney has his own experience with hiding Arab heritage. In 1990, he changed his name from Sami to Stephen in preparation for a congressional run that never occurred. But Mashney sees this as different than what Mansoor is doing, a matter of marketing on his part as opposed to what he calls an outright denial by Mansoor.

But it remains to be seen whether the election will play any role in rousing Orange County’s large Arab community. When al-Dabbagh sent out one of his e-mails last week urging people to defeat Mansoor, he initially said he got one response.

After a pause, some pressing and an embarrassed laugh, al-Dabbagh admitted that he received one other e-mail from a man who wondered why it mattered how Mansoor identified himself. “I told him … and I think he got it and I hope he makes it to the fundraiser.”

He didn’t.