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Janet Nguyen's smile stretches across her broad, oval-shaped face as she hunches forward in her trademark blue blouse and black pantsuit, one leg casually crossed over the other. She's sitting on a couch in her office on the fifth floor of the Hall of Administration Building in Santa Ana's Civic Center. Until now, on this recent Wednesday afternoon, the first Vietnamese-American county supervisor in Orange County history (and, at age 31, the youngest supervisor ever) has been perfectly relaxed.
But at the mention of three names—Van Thai Tran, a California assemblyman and the most powerful Vietnamese-American elected official in the country; Michael Schroeder, the lawyer and party activist who many observers say secretly controls Republican politics behind the Orange Curtain; and his client, Garden Grove School District Trustee Trung Nguyen (no relation), who Janet defeated to win her current job—Janet Nguyen stops smiling.
She glances across the room at her taciturn chief of staff, Andrew Do, a former deputy district attorney who has barely spoken a word in the past half-hour. Almost imperceptibly, he shakes his head. Perhaps the supervisor doesn't want to engage in any further public duels with the three people who have made her life hell for much of the past year?
It hasn't been a back-and-forth, she insists. "It's more of me being attacked and me not attacking anybody. It's us trying to defend ourselves and stopping people from being mean, basically."
"Mean" doesn't begin to describe the venom that has been directed at Nguyen in the past year, ever since she won the February 2007 election against Trung Nguyen by a mere three votes. Since then, Schroeder in particular has waged an all-out attack against her and her campaign, even going so far as to call her a liar who covered up illegal campaign donations and who stole the election from Trung Nguyen, who initially won by seven votes before a manual recount of absentee ballots gave his rival the victory. Schroeder appealed the controversial recount and now eagerly awaits a state appeals court ruling that could immediately remove Nguyen from office—which probably explains her reluctance to talk about Schroeder with reporters.
But even if she survives that ruling, Nguyen still faces a tough re-election race this June, and her legal battles with Schroeder have already cost her tens of thousands of dollars. By running for her current seat-and winning, no less—she hasn't just alienated the Republican Party machine that used to support her, but she's also made enemies of a surprising number of people who used to call her a friend.
Her critics call her conniving, spiteful and arrogant. Her supporters call her fiercely independent, which is the real reason why she's so hated by the likes of Schroeder. Their battle is already the most vicious and public dispute within Republican Party politics in recent memory, providing fodder for dozens of stories in The Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times, as well as almost-daily updates on conservative blogs such as Red County. What remains a mystery, though, are the answers to the most basic questions of all: Just who is Janet Nguyen, and how did she become so dangerous and despised?
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Nguyen's remarkably swift journey to elected office and electoral controversy began in Saigon in 1976, the year after the Vietnam War ended, when she was born to a family that included an uncle who served in the South Vietnamese army's special forces and was executed by communist troops upon their victory. "My father was in the South Vietnamese army as well," she says. "And after the war ended, my father was put in prison, and our houses and businesses were ransacked. . . . Because of our family's military background, we had to leave."
In 1981, after five years of repeated, failed efforts to sneak out of the country resulting in the arrest of both of her parents, Nguyen's family finally escaped Vietnam by boat and headed for a refugee camp in Thailand. But the camp was full, and Thai authorities refused to allow the family to land. So her family literally jumped ship, destroying the boat and swimming ashore. She doesn't remember anything about the escape, except for a Colgate toothpaste billboard at the camp. "The only things we had were our clothes," she says.
From Thailand, Nguyen's family flew to San Bernardino, where their immigration paperwork had been sponsored by a Seventh-day Adventist church. While her parents remained Buddhists, both she and her sister were raised in the church, as was her younger brother, who was born in Redlands, where Nguyen grew up. Because her parents wanted her and her siblings to assimilate, they refused to move to Garden Grove's Little Saigon, though the family would travel there every weekend to run errands. Nguyen grew up speaking English around the house; only recently, she says, has she become anything close to fluent in Vietnamese.
She recalls a childhood of hard work and little extravagance. "We were poor," she says. "We were on food stamps, welfare; my clothes came from the Salvation Army. . . . Our Christmas gifts came from the church."