O.C. supervisor’s victory heralds rise of Asian American politicians
Few Orange County politicians command the name recognition of Lou Correa, who has held seats in both houses of the California Legislature and on the county’s Board of Supervisors.
As he battled to regain that supervisor’s seat in recent months, the advantages seemed to be his: He led a five-candidate field in fundraising and faced relatively obscure opponents in a district where his party, the Democrats, far outnumbered Republicans.
But Republican Andrew Do, an attorney who has held no office higher than the Garden Grove City Council seat he left more than three years ago, defeated him by a razor-thin margin in Tuesday’s special election. Do received 18,905 votes to Correa’s 18,862.
Correa, who did not return calls from The Times, has until Wednesday to request a recount.
Do had assets that seemed to prove decisive, including ubiquitous access to the hyper-connected, politically engaged Vietnamese-speaking community of Little Saigon in central Orange County, who voted in large numbers, many of them by mail-in ballot.
“It’s certainly a Vietnamese win,” said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, noting that the three Vietnamese American candidates together won about 60% of the vote.
Do’s election gives Orange County — and most likely Southern California — its first Asian American majority Board of Supervisors. Michelle Park Steel, a Korean American, and Lisa Bartlett, a Japanese American, won seats on the five-member Orange County board in November.
In this and other recent races, the success of Asian American candidates may represent renewed hope for the Orange County GOP, which has seen its once-ironclad grip on the county slip significantly in recent decades amid a growing Latino population.
In 2012, a Latina schoolteacher named Sharon Quirk-Silva defeated GOP Assemblyman Chris Norby in a northwestern district. In November, however, Republican Young Kim, a Korean American, ousted Quirk-Silva while county Supervisor Janet Nguyen, a Vietnamese American and a Republican, defeated Jose Solorio in a state Senate district controlled by the Democrats.
Smoller described the results of the Do-Correa contest as a “bellwether,” saying: “The Vietnamese seem to be doing to Hispanics what the Hispanics started to do to the Anglos. It’s an ethnic shift.”
Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, said the results of the 2012 election — in which only 27% of Asian Americans in California voted with the GOP — was a wake-up call for the party. He said the party has since ramped up efforts to reach voters of Asian descent.
“We’re out there with a very significant ground game in terms of registering Vietnamese Republicans and getting them out to vote,” Whitaker said. Last fall, the party focused on the Korean vote to support Steel and Kim.
The Do-Correa race was a staple of conversation in Little Saigon’s many coffee shops, where people followed saturation coverage in dozens of Vietnamese-language media outlets: newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations. On any given day, it was a fair bet that voters would see Do’s photo or hear his voice.
Candidates would make the rounds on Moran Street at three of the district’s four daily newspapers and pay visits to Little Saigon Radio, Radio Bolsa and Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, where round-the-clock coverage brought attention to the race even in Vietnam.
Do, who had worked as chief of staff for Nguyen, waged an aggressive campaign to replace her, and in ad after ad he promised to fight taxes and to reduce the size of local government, popular themes in Orange County.
“Basically, he was everywhere,” said Minh Tran, a Santa Ana retiree who often meets his buddies at the Asian Garden Mall. “I heard his voice in the evening on air, and when I woke up, there he was in the newspaper again.”
While Latino news outlets such as Univision and Telemundo often focus on state and national issues, reporters in Little Saigon favor a hyper-local focus, often covering Vietnamese candidates in exhaustive and relentless detail, said Tyler Diep, news anchor and political director for Vietface TV. “It makes a huge difference,” he added.
Kevin Callan, an analyst at Political Data Inc., which maintains a database on California voting patterns, said the district Do won has nearly 53,000 of Orange County’s 86,000 registered Vietnamese American voters and 78,000 of the county’s 263,000 registered Latinos. But the Vietnamese Americans skewed older.
“More Asians and more Republicans are going to turn out, by virtue of their age,” Callan said. “It all links back to age. Older voters vote at a higher rate.”
In Steel’s district, which includes wealthy coastal cities such as Newport Beach, the demographics seem classically Orange County: 8.3% Asian American, 10% Latino, the rest white.
“People don’t think of us as Asian leaders,” said Steel, who was born in Korea. “They just think about what we can do for them.”
That the board now claims an Asian American majority will not alter much of its policy work, she said. Still, her staff boasts a Thai speaker and a Korean speaker, and she’s about to hire a Vietnamese American.
“I have to do this because those people who are underserved should know that we are here to help,” she said.
More than 67% of Asian Americans in California are first-generation and speak a language other than English, she said. “The more we connect with them locally, the more they will realize, ‘Oh my gosh, now that these supervisors are Asian, we have someone to listen.’”
Smoller stressed the importance of absentee ballots in the Do-Correa race, noting that more than 80% were cast by mail.
“You can’t separate the success of the Vietnamese from the fact that they use vote-by-mail,” Smoller said. “That community has figured out how to get those ballots and get them sent home.”
Smoller also emphasized the passion for politics in the Vietnamese community. “Politics is something they’ve learned really matters, many of them having been forced out of their country.”
Van Tran, a former state assemblyman from central Orange County who fled Vietnam as a boy, said Do’s victory did not surprise him.
“The community is very organized in terms of mass mobilization of voters,” Tran said. “That’s why you see people turning out on short notice for protests for a cause. The community can turn out on a dime.”
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