By Gustavo Arellano
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“What I try to be more than anything is a normal person,” he said. “I think I have a great sense of humor, keep things in perspective. Others may perceive me as too serious. But I coach youth football, and we have fun. I’m not a hard-ass dad. I try not to use the words ‘I know,’ when I really don’t. I’m a real quick study. Some people might say that’s arrogance. No. It’s just one thing that I’m good at.”
Nelson, who first won his city council post in 2002, says he discovered his own political naiveté during the current campaign. In February, he attended the California Republican Assembly convention in Costa Mesa believing that delegates would enter “with an open mind and listen to the candidates” before making an endorsement.
“But the vote was in the bag for Harry Sidhu before it happened,” he recalled, referring to the fast-food-restaurant owner who is a Republican member of the Anaheim City Council and one of Nelson’s opponent in the race. “When I saw that Harry had brought his wife to vote there and Janet Nguyen [a supervisor who supports Sidhu] working her BlackBerry in the back of the room, I knew I was in trouble. But losing taught me I really had to focus on getting the two other endorsements I wanted: the Republican Party and the Lincoln Club. And I knew I had to get hustling, making dozens and dozens and dozens of calls.”
Nelson’s efforts succeeded with the two powerful GOP groups, in part, because he sold Sidhu as someone who has “run for eight offices in three years—that’s an opportunist running for self-promotion.”
Tim Clark, spokesman for Sidhu’s campaign, responded, “Criminal defense lawyer Shawn Nelson is skilled at distorting facts to twist and confuse the truth. The fact is, Harry and Shawn have both been on the ballot four times in the past decade. So, by his own accounting, it’s Shawn Nelson who is the ‘ambitious’ perennial candidate. It’s a typical, seedy, defense-lawyer trick to accuse your opponent of the very act that you’ve committed.”
The OCEA isn’t officially backing any candidate in the Fourth District race, but the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS) has been making independent expenditures through direct-mail and cable-television campaigns on Sidhu’s behalf. The union’s cable ad hails Sidhu as “a common-sense leader who embodies the values of integrity and hard work . . . and is dedicated to protecting taxpayers.”
At candidate forums, Sidhu says he’s greatly concerned with creating local jobs, defending pro-life policies and “fighting” the housing of large numbers of early-released prisoners in the district. He has also said he backs serious government-employee pension reform, though apparently not enough to offend the unions.
Nelson rejects the notion that Sidhu, 52, can represent the district and thinks he’ll capture tea-party voters. “As far as I know, I’m the grandfather of the tea party in Orange County,” he says, noting that in 2009, he organized a rally to burn copies of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies to protest state government spending.
“Shawn is certainly the candidate of the tea-party movement,” said Chris Thompson, a conservative resident of the Fourth District and self-described tea-party “sympathizer” who has volunteered to campaign for Nelson. An entrepreneur who calls Sidhu “not ideologically pure” and Galloway “basically dumb,” Thompson, also believes that “if Shawn kicks ass, that will certainly imply that the tea-party movement has had some significant traction.”
“These people are saying, ‘I’m tired of this. What did I do wrong?’” Nelson says. “‘I’ve just been working hard, and now I’m wondering why my president is trying to blame me. How much is expected of me? They’re trying to redistribute wealth. Aren’t I already doing my share? We are the ones pulling the wagon. Why whip us? Enough already!’”
It was a passionate speech that only an accomplished plaintiff’s lawyer could deliver. It was my turn to smile. I didn’t need to ask another question.
“The key to this primary is who is motivated,” Nelson concluded. “From jury work, I know if you get people mad, get out of the way.”