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In tight California House race, ‘red-baiting’ mailers accuse candidate of communist ties

GOP Rep. Michelle Steel and her Democratic rival Jay Chen pictured speaking at events.
GOP Rep. Michelle Steel has sent fliers to Vietnamese American voters about Democratic rival Jay Chen that he and his supporters argue wrongly paint him as a communist sympathizer.
(Associated Press)
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The campaign flier sent to Vietnamese American voters in Orange County is heavily doctored and designed to inflame. A Democratic congressional candidate is photoshopped in front of a classroom of children, a copy of “The Communist Manifesto” in hand.

On the wall hang images of communist icons Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin and Ho Chi Minh. (Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, is up there too.) A single fist in the Black power salute teaches students the number one. Two is symbolized by hands holding a hammer and sickle.

“Jay Chen invited China into our children’s classes” is written in Vietnamese on the chalkboard.

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The flier, crafted and funded by GOP Rep. Michelle Steel, would be effective in much of the country. But it has the potential to be particularly powerful in Steel’s Orange County-centered district. She is running for reelection in the new 45th Congressional District, which has an Asian American plurality. The district is home to the largest concentration of people of Vietnamese descent outside of Vietnam — and depicting her Democratic rival as a communist sympathizer could give Steel’s campaign a big boost.

“Within the AAPI community, especially among the Vietnamese, there is a well-known and long-standing visceral opposition to communism. That’s why many Vietnamese settled in the United States following the Vietnam War,” said Tom K. Wong, an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego, using an acronym for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“If there is a rumor a candidate has ties to some kind of past regime that an AAPI community has fled, that can be incredibly damaging,” he said.

Chen, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, called the flier “ridiculous.”

“I thought it was really absurd and, beyond that, really dangerous the way she is exploiting fears within the immigrant community for political gain,” he said.

Chen, 44, pointed out that his grandmother fled communist China and that he is a Naval Reserve officer with top-secret security clearance.

“This is red-baiting, since it entails a Taiwanese American being accused of bringing Maoist thought into American classrooms,” said Long T. Bui, an associate professor of global and international studies at UC Irvine. “None of this is part of Chen’s educational platform.”

The flier highlights a vote Chen cast to support a program known as the Confucius Institute more than a decade ago, when he was a board member of the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District. The Beijing-backed language and cultural learning centers were popular on campuses across the nation at the time but have drawn scrutiny in recent years and are now viewed as propaganda arms of the Chinese government.

Before the June primary, Steel attacked Chen for supporting the program; Chen raised funds off the claim, calling Steel’s words “racist.”

The race between Rep. Michelle Steel and Jay Chen in a congressional district drawn to empower Asian Americans now features charges of racism, sexism and red-baiting.

The mailer also features the Democratic donkey, an antifa flag and a drawing of a Black child standing on the highest pile of books to be at the same level as two white children, under the word “equity.”

Such symbolism, as well as the Black power fist, “are obviously tapping into current hot-button topics for mobilizing far-right conservatives,” Bui said. “They are included in the fliers because they all fall under this general fear of California and the United States becoming a socialist liberal paradise.”

The Steel campaign countered that the flier provides important information to voters as they decide whom to support in the November election.

“Given China’s ever-growing threat to America, it is imperative that voters know where their candidates for Congress stand on the issue, and Jay Chen’s personal ties to China are deeply concerning,” said Lance Trover, a spokesman for Steel. “The State Department has said [the Confucius Institute’s] mission is to advance Beijing’s global propaganda, and in an era where nothing passes unanimously, the U.S. Senate voted 100-0 to increase oversight of these [Chinese Communist Party]-funded institutes.”

The Steel campaign has also sent out an English-language flier accusing Chen of “working for China” and discussing the school program. It also claims that Chen’s “campaign was bankrolled by a donor in communist China”; that attack refers to Chen’s brother, an American citizen who in 2012 was working as an investment banker in Hong Kong when he funded an independent expenditure committee to support Chen’s unsuccessful congressional campaign that year.

In the November midterm election, California is one of the battlefields as Democrats and Republicans fight over control of Congress.

The 45th Congressional District was created last year during the once-a-decade redrawing of district boundaries after the census. A priority for the independent panel that drew the lines was creating a district that empowered the region’s Asian American voters.

Democrats have a 5-point voter registration edge in the district, which is centered on the Little Saigon community in Orange County. One-third of the district’s voters are Asian American; half of those are of Vietnamese descent.

Despite the Democratic advantage, the race will be decided by turnout. In the June primary, Steel and another Republican received nearly 57% of the vote, while Chen got 43%.

Steel, who is 67 and Korean American, has forged ties with the area’s Vietnamese community during her time in county, state and federal office.

“She really shows up for our community,” said Fountain Valley Councilman Michael Vo.

Anti-Chen pamphlets have landed in his mailbox, Vo said. “I cannot verify the facts on them, but what’s important is who is qualified.”

Part of what draws him to Steel is her heritage.

“Being born in [South] Korea, she understands the North Korea situation and how unstable it is for our security. ... She realizes the threat of communism to the world,” he said.

Chen has also courted the Vietnamese American community: He cut a cake at the 30th anniversary celebration for Viet Bao Daily News, a Vietnamese-language publication; visited veteran groups and celebrated the Autumn Moon Festival.

Steel used similar anti-communist messaging in her successful 2020 contest against Democratic incumbent Rep. Harley Rouda. Her campaign mailed a flier that showed Rouda with a stylized picture of a beaming Mao and text alleging that his voting record was insufficiently tough against China.

The Viet Bao Daily News wrote that it had received questions from the community about the anti-Chen mailer and on Wednesday published a fact-checking list from an unnamed reader.

Among the claims the reader labeled as misleading was a statement on the flier that Chen attended Peking University, the same school as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The writer said that while Chen was attending Harvard University, he received a scholarship to study Mandarin at Peking University, which was founded in 1898, “more than fifty years before the communists took over China. This is the oldest and most famous university in China, a ‘Harvard of China.’ ”

Supporters of both candidates agreed that the flier taps into the deep resentment many Vietnamese Americans harbor toward communism.

They were aging refugees from the Vietnam War, many of whom had endured arrest and imprisonment at the hands of the communist government before escaping to the United States.

“The anti-China sentiment is very high in the Vietnamese American community,” said Chen supporter Phu Do Nguyen, 55, an attorney and former Army officer.

The Fountain Valley resident fled Vietnam alone by boat in 1979, when he was 14. He spent a year in a refugee camp in Malaysia before the U.S. government brought him to Orange County. Such experiences, as well as current tensions between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea, shape the community’s politics, Nguyen said.

“Smearing his name as somehow supporting red China in terms of communism — I think it’s a very dirty tactic,” Nguyen said. “Michelle knows labeling someone as a communist sympathizer will strengthen her position. She knows that she’s using it inappropriately.”

Linda Nguyen, a Steel supporter who said she was in her 40s, said it doesn’t matter if the flier tying Chen to communism “has proof or no proof.”

“It’s an effective way of reaching the older Vietnamese,” she said, sipping hibiscus tea in Westminster’s Little Saigon.

Statewide offices, congressional seats, L.A. mayor, propositions — including on abortion, sports betting and taxes — are up in the November election.

But some undecided voters are soured by the negative campaigning.

Minh Pham, who was buying coffee and tofu near his Westminster home, is still deciding which candidate will earn his vote. He has viewed videos of their speeches and plans to do more reading about their platforms.

“The ads should not be about accusations,” said Pham, who said he was in his 80s. “They should focus on someone’s personal record. Look at what this person did in the past and compare it to what they can do in the future. ... Everyone tries to use communism as a hook. That’s not always the solution.”

VIDEO | 05:33
LA Times Today: In tight California House race, ‘red-baiting’ mailers accuse candidate of communist ties

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.


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