Long a caldron of tension over race and immigration issues, Orange County demonstrated in this week’s balloting that while it has undergone enormous demographic shifts, it still struggles with its changing complexion.
A once-sleepy congressional race that revved up when a Vietnamese candidate’s campaign warned Latino immigrants not to vote captured the most attention, but who won city council and school board seats across the county also turned on the import voters gave to accusations of racial and ethnic insensitivity.
Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) breezed to reelection against the GOP’s Tan Nguyen, whose campaign had mailed letters to Latino voters warning immigrants not to vote. But in Costa Mesa, candidates who were targeted because of their anti-illegal immigration proposals easily kept their seats.
The inflammatory campaign season included a state Republican leader calling an Arab American city council candidate an extremist for supporting a mainstream Islamic-American relations group; community upheaval over a Westminster school trustee’s change of heart over hiring a Vietnamese American superintendent; and Irvine’s mayor fighting off accusations that she’d snubbed the city’s Taiwanese community by awarding sister-city status to a town in China.
If anything, experts said, Orange County’s divisive elections underscore its transition to a place where immigrant groups have gained enough political clout to contend for local posts and tangle with county power brokers, analysts said.
‘Orange County’s reputation is as a place that is—or least was—intolerant as a white-bread, ultraconservative community,’ said UC Irvine political scientist Mark Petracca. ‘It’s clear the Orange County I’ve experienced in the last 20 years has had some of those elements, but they’ve declined as the demographics and economics have changed.’
The county and its long-dominant Republican leaders have been saddled with a sometimes thorny legacy concerning ethnic politics. The signature incident occurred in 1988, when the local GOP sent uniformed poll guards to heavily Latino polling stations, some with signs in Spanish declaring that noncitizens couldn’t vote. In 1994, the county birthed Proposition 187, a ballot measure that would have denied benefits to undocumented immigrants had the courts not overturned it.
Over the years, Orange County has diversified, with the latest census figures showing that ethnic minorities constitute about half its population. Little Saigon is home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, and Santa Ana, the county seat and California’s ninth-largest city, is more than three-quarters Latino. On Tuesday, it cemented another milestone: an all-Latino City Council.
‘We’ve had white groups dominating local politics and ethnic groups fighting for crumbs. Now the racial and ethnic groups that were always there are coming into political power,’ said Louis DeSipio, a UC Irvine political scientist who specializes in ethnic politics.