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Four months ago, Tan Nguyen was the talk of Orange County. Now? Only the Mexicans who live in a dilapidated Santa Ana neighborhood remember him.
Nguyen, of course, was the Republican Party's 47th Congressional District candidate who lost handily last November to incumbent Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove). Nguyen attracted controversy like paper clips to a magnet, the most notorious example being the uproar over a letter sent by a staffer to 14,000 registered Latino voters telling them illegal immigrants can't vote. The Republican Party publicly rebuked Nguyen, and the letter sparked a state Attorney General's investigation that involved a raid of Nguyen's campaign office by armed guards. Nguyen denied having any connection to the letter but strangely defended its contents at a rally that included a Vietnamese woman in fishnet stockings and can-can dress belting out "Stand By Our Tan" to the tune of Tammy Wynette's country classic, "Stand by Your Man."
Nguyen faded from the public eye soon after the crushing election defeat. Down came his campaign signs, most defaced by angry Latinos, who adorned them with swastikas, Hitler mustaches and curse words coupled with "racista." His website no longer works. And the county's politicos have turned their attention to other Nguyens: Janet and Trung, one of whom will eventually be declared the winner of the contested First District Orange County Supervisor seat.
In fact, the only remnant of the Nguyen campaign are two signs reading "Tan for Congress" stapled onto a telephone pole near the corner of 17th and Durant streets in Santa Ana. Remarkably, the signs have escaped the vandalism and thievery that plagued their cheaply made peers. They're still vibrantly yellow and red, the colors of the old South Vietnamese flag, and not frayed at all. Nguyen's slogan, "Not Afraid to Tell It Like It Is," is at the bottom of each. The Nguyen sign stands out from the clutter mostly because of its height—around eight feet from the base of the telephone pole—but also for its use of the English language.
According to California's 2005 Outdoor Advertising Act, all political signs must be removed no more than 10 days after an election. But the statute doesn't specify any penalty for violating the law, just a vague passage requiring the offending party to "pay to the director a fine in an amount equivalent to any costs related to that removal and destruction." Santa Ana's civic code calls for a similar penalty for illegal signs. The Department of Transportation is in charge of enforcing the rule, but a spokesperson told the Weekly the DOT only responds to complaints lodged by individuals and doesn't actively seek signs to tear down.
Judging by this criteria, those last vestiges of Nguyen will never disappear. Santa Ana's telephone poles act as a sort of blog for the city's Latino-immigrant super-majority, a place where individuals tack on everything from job fliers to papers advertising rooms for rent to posters for local nightclubs.
Not only that, but none of a dozen or so people interviewed as they passed by the sign on a recent Thursday afternoon had sufficient awareness of Nguyen to be offended by his placard's presence. "A politician, probably—it says 'Congress,'" said one man in Spanish. Only one individual had even vaguely heard of him. "Isn't he that chino who hates Mexicans?" a woman asked.
Nguyen's campaign couldn't be reached for comment. And so the sign stands, a testament to a campaign that sought to shake Orange County's political landscape but, like so many political dreams before, ended up discarded and forgotten on the streets of Santa Ana.