By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Inside a Costa Mesa hotel ballroom on Feb. 20, Orange County’s most enthusiastic conservative activists met to hear candidate speeches and issue endorsements while paying homage to Saint Ronnie and excoriating gays, abortion rights, bureaucrats and, the favorite target of the day, employees’ unions. The meeting of the local chapter of the California Republican Assembly (CRA) began with an invocation that asked God to ensure that “people of good character and faith get elected” and ended three-plus hours later with a whiff of scandal. A handful of members wondered aloud at the meeting: Had Van Tran, a Republican candidate hoping to face Democrat Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez in November, quietly stolen CRA’s endorsement for his primary fight against Quang Pham?
The backing of this group carries considerable weight in OC Republican circles. Ronald Reagan called the statewide CRA, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, the “conscience of the Republican party.” Around here, that means an unswerving adherence to right-wing orthodoxy on hot-button social issues such as prayer in school (for), gun rights (for), gay rights (against), abortion rights (against), etc.
Pham addressed the crowd first, noting he’s a Christian, husband, father and ex-Marine major who emigrated with his family from Saigon at the age of 10. “I’m the only candidate in the race who has run a multimillion-dollar business, the only candidate who has served his country, the only candidate who has worked in health care, and I’m sick and tired of professional politicians,” he said in a series of thinly veiled swipes at Tran and Sanchez.
During a Q&A session, Pham was asked about the extent of his aversion to abortion and gay rights and didn’t give the crowd—one of whom wore a tie crammed with biblical quotes—the red-meat answers they craved. Instead, he stated that while he is pro-life, he feels uncomfortable dictating all decisions made between a doctor and a pregnant woman. Pham also said that while he believes marriage is between a man and a woman, as a business owner, he gives benefits to all his employees, regardless of their sexuality.
“No!” an elderly man yelled while others booed.
“No booing!” yelled back convention chairman Craig Alexander.
When it was his turn to speak, Tran—a state assemblyman from Little Saigon—pounced.
“I am a lifelong Republican with Ronald Reagan principles, and I’m against the gay and lesbian agenda,” he said. “I am a child of the Reagan Revolution. Loretta Sanchez took out my old boss, Bob Dornan, and now his old staffer is going to take her out! Less government! Less taxes! More freedom!”
On Sanchez, he explained, “We need a crusade to take out Loretta Sanchez. She claims she is a moderate, but she votes with [raising his voice an octave] Nancy Pelosi!”
For this audience, Pelosi, Sanchez, Mussolini, Stalin and Castro are ideological soul mates. There was moaning, hissing and more booing. Alexander frowned but didn’t issue another warning.
“What’s your name?” someone in the crowd shouted.
“My name is short, and it rhymes,” he said, smiling. “Van Tran.”
An unimpressed county Supervisor Janet Nguyen, no Tran fan, stood in the back of the room, shaking her head.
By CRA rules, candidates must win two-thirds of the vote at the meeting to grab an official endorsement. When the vote was announced, Tran had 17 supporters—the bare minimum needed. Pham received 7 votes
One of the votes for Tran came from Paul Hegyi. He is Tran’s chief of staff at the state capitol, a longtime resident of Sacramento—according to county-assessor records—and, until recently, a candidate for California’s 10th Assembly District, which includes Sacramento County. To let Hegyi cast his vote, CRA officials declared him a member of the Stanton branch of Orange County’s club, though he is registered to vote in Sacramento. The local CRA website lists all its branches. Stanton is not one of them.
And there’s this: The Stanton branch shouldn’t have been allowed to vote in the 47th Congressional District race because—unlike Anaheim, Fullerton, Garden Grove and Santa Ana—it’s not in the district, according to Pham supporters. According to CRA rules, only members from within a district can vote on the endorsement of a candidate running in that district. At that meeting, the local CRA board declared that even though Stanton isn’t in the district, a portion of unincorporated Anaheim touches that city, so they would allow Stanton delegates to vote in the 47th.
The intrigue deepens if you connect additional dots. Tran is a protégé of Mike Schroeder, a Santa Ana chiropractic-insurance-company owner, a GOP bigwig and arguably the savviest brass-knuckle political strategist in the county. According to campaign records, Schroeder, who lives in Corona del Mar, endorsed Hegyi’s campaign for the Assembly seat and worked with CRA parliamentarian Tim Whitacre in the effort to recall Republican Anthony Adams last year. Schroeder told me he was unaware of any coordinated effort to bring in Hegyi solely to secure the endorsement for Tran.
But Mike McGill, a CRA official, said he was disgusted that Hegyi was allowed to vote in the Tran-Pham contest.
“This is the worst case of political carpetbagging I’ve ever heard of,” McGill said. “He’s a Sacramento politician who flies 500 miles down to vote in an Orange County election. Wow. It doesn’t look right.”
Whitacre, who doesn’t think Pham is socially conservative enough for CRA-OC tastes and openly supports Tran, said the group’s bylaws allow a member to join “any branch he wants to join, regardless of where he lives.”
“The only thing that’s prohibited is that [Hegyi] can’t be a member of two of our groups at the same time,” said Whitacre, who described the flap as “just sour grapes.”
According to Whitacre, Tran would have won the endorsement even if Hegyi had been blocked from voting.
McGill said he isn’t an expert on CRA bylaws but thinks Hegyi’s vote “looks like insider, backroom politics at its worst.”
“If it’s legal [in CRA bylaws], it certainly does nothing but weaken our credibility as an organization,” he said.
Pham said Tran had grabbed the endorsement after he’d “clandestinely stacked the vote,” and he called on CRA officials to “void” the outcome.
Neither Tran nor Hegyi has returned calls seeking comment for this story.
In other convention news, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens—who refused to fill out the group’s questionnaire—didn’t show up, leaving former sheriff’s lieutenant Bill Hunt to debate Anaheim’s deputy police chief, Craig Hunter. Hunt dominated the vote, besting Hunter 56-36—five votes shy of getting the endorsement. (Hutchens received none.)
Other candidates who won endorsement were Harry Sidhu over Sean Nelson for the 4th District supervisor’s seat, Allan Mansoor over Long Pham in the 68th Assembly District, and Dan Wagner over Steven Choi and Jerry Amante for the 70th Assembly District. Numerous candidates—including John Moorlach, Tony Rackauckas, Dana Rohrabacher and Ed Royce—had no competition at the event and also won the group’s support.
CRA member Allan Bartlett gave Irvine Congressman John Campbell a scare by yanking his name from the automatic endorsement rankings. Bartlett addressed the crowd holding a Ron Paul-signed U.S. Constitution booklet and argued that Campbell had violated the nation’s founding documents by voting for the federal bailout of Wall Street banks. The move came within one vote of blocking the group’s endorsement of the congressman.
“I’m pretty happy,” said Bartlett afterward. “I think I made my point.”
The bulk of this article appeared previously on the Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog.This column appeared in print as "The Hometown Favorite? Some OC conservative activists are grumbling about the way Van Tran secured their group’s approval."