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Immigrant politicians fight for votes in the heart of Orange County

Mail-in ballots are counted in Santa Ana. A state Senate election next week shows the changed landscape of Orange County.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Walking door to door in suburban Los Alamitos, Janet Nguyen lets her 3-year-old son soften up the voters.

“Please vote for my mom,” says Tommy, who hops off his bike to ring the doorbells.

A couple of towns over, Jose Solorio works the crowds at a candlelight vigil in Little Saigon, where activists gathered in solidarity with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

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As election day nears, a pair of immigrant politicians — one a refugee from Vietnam, the other the son of a migrant farmer from Mexico — are fighting for votes in barrios, temples and marketplaces in the heart of Orange County.

Though the state Senate contest figures prominently in the push by Democrats to regain a supermajority in the legislature, it also speaks to the changed landscape in a county that once was reliably conservative and white.

The Senate district sprawls across the center core of the county — predominantly Latino in cities such as Santa Ana, heavily Asian in towns such as Westminster and Garden Grove. For years, it’s been safe turf for Democrats.

In past elections, experts say voters here tended to vote along ethnic lines. Nguyen, for instance, was a political unknown in 2007 when she beat her far-better-known competitors in a race for county supervisor, an outcome driven largely by the strong turnout in Little Saigon. Nguyen and a second Vietnamese American candidate earned more votes than all the other eight candidates combined.

But that ethnic solidarity may be changing.

“In the past, it was a relative novelty to get ethnic politicians on the ballot. But candidates and voters have matured,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy and political science at UC Riverside. “Where they once voted along ethnic lines, they now look for more qualifications.”

Both Nguyen and Solorio — she the Republican, he the Democrat — have been aggressive in reaching outside their ethnic comfort zone in search of votes. Nguyen, now in her second term as county supervisor, is running ads aimed at Latino voters. Solorio, who once represented the district in the state Assembly, is courting Vietnamese Americans.

When Nguyen arranged a series of free flu shot clinics, she staged the first one at the Delhi Center, a refuge in a densely populated Latino neighborhood in Santa Ana. The next one was at a county service center in Westminster, drawing a large Asian crowd.

“If I have to explain the same issue three times, in three communities, that’s what I do,” Nguyen, 38, said.

Solorio, 44, a former Santa Ana councilman, marvels at the diversity of the Senate district, which includes nearly a dozen cities and roughly 1 million people.

“If I don’t speak their language, I find someone who speaks their language,” he says.

Both candidates deliver online and printed materials in Spanish, Vietnamese and English. Solorio has run spots on popular Vietnamese radio programs; Nguyen has taken out ads in Spanish-language newspapers. Both lean heavily on their status as immigrants to win votes.

Solorio was born in Michoacan and came to the U.S. when he was 8 months old. His father worked the fields in the Central Valley, and Solorio and his siblings spent summers boxing almonds, picking fruit and weeding the fields.

He went on to UC Irvine and then Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in public policy. First elected to the Santa Ana City Council, Solorio served two terms in the Assembly.

“I feel right at home in the immigrant community because it’s my community,” said Solorio, whose wife is Chinese American — a fact he points out to voters.

Nguyen grew in Saigon and left Vietnam at age 5, fleeing on a boat with her family. She grew up in Garden Grove, her family struggling on welfare and food stamps, and she also attended UC Irvine. She intended to go to medical school, but she changed her career path after taking a political science course taught by then-county Supervisor Bill Steiner.

She’d never held county office when she burst on the scene in 2007, one of 10 candidates running for supervisor. When she won, political observers — who’d put their stock in veteran candidates like state Assemblyman Tom Umberg — were stunned. Nguyen was the nation’s first Vietnamese American county supervisor.

“I want to be at the table when law is created for or against someone like me — whether that be a mom, a business owner, a minority or a young professional, like me,” she said. “This is addictive. It’s a passion.”

Solorio sees a broader message in the race.

“For both Democrat and Republican parties, 10 years ago, if you had asked who the contestants would be in a race like this, they might not have pictured two individuals from immigrant backgrounds,” he said.

“But we’re both here, and the younger people see us as role models.”

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier


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