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."
When Nguyen reached high-school age, her parents moved to Garden Grove. By then, they had also determined she would become a doctor. She attended UC Irvine as a biology major, planning to continue to medical school for an eventual career as an obstetrician. Meanwhile, she worked three jobs: weekend manager at a Robinsons-May department store, late-night supervisor at a movie theater and waitress at a local restaurant. In 1997, during her sophomore year, she attended a required social-science class on politics and government. Her teacher was Bill Steiner, then-chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
At some point toward the end of the class, Nguyen experienced something akin to a revelation: She would go into politics, not medicine. "I didn't know who [Steiner] was, didn't know what a supervisor was," she recalls. "But at the end of the class, I learned a lot. He gave us extra credit to go to the board meetings, and after the class, I thought to myself, 'Well, you know, he does sound important. And what he is doing sounds very important, and it sounds interesting.' . . . That's really where my political career started."
Nguyen asked Steiner for an internship, which quickly turned into a full-time job as an assistant, a post Nguyen continued after Steiner left office, replaced by Supervisor Cynthia Coad. She changed her major to political science, and about a year later, she told her parents about her new career choice. They weren't pleased.
"Their view was, we escaped the government, and now you're one of them," she says. "I never thought I was going into public office—'I'm going to be a supervisor'—it wasn't that. It was thinking, 'I am going to help empower people and make them understand about government, how we function.' That's what I wanted to do."
In May 1999, Nguyen left Coad's office to work as a field representative for Assemblyman Ken Maddox. She graduated from UC Irvine the following spring, by which time she had been promoted to a district representative, helping Maddox serve his Vietnamese-American constituents. She ultimately became Maddox's district director, supervising the entire staff at his Orange County headquarters.
"I was looking for somebody who spoke Vietnamese to work in my office because I represented Little Saigon," recalls Maddox, now a campaign consultant. "Janet showed some ability to speak Vietnamese, so I took her on as a field representative. Apparently, I didn't realize how little Vietnamese she spoke," he adds. "It became a source of controversy when I had a missionary who was not Vietnamese in my office who spoke more [of the language] than her."
While working for Maddox, Nguyen met Van Thai Tran, a lawyer who ran for a seat on the Garden Grove City Council in 2000. "I went in and introduced myself to him at his law office as the new field rep for Ken Maddox," she says. "Everyone in the community, including myself, supported him." Four years later, when Tran announced he would run for a newly redistricted assembly seat, she supported him again. Tran also cultivated Nguyen's political career, appointing her to the city's traffic commission in 2001 and the planning commission in 2002.
Two years later, Nguyen mounted a run for the Garden Grove City Council, with help from Maddox, who served as her campaign consultant. She won the race, receiving more votes than eight other candidates. "I was very excited about her becoming a city council member," Maddox says. "She was only the second woman and the youngest person elected. I was fond of her and thought she had a lot of integrity. She had ideas for Garden Grove, and I gave her a road map to try to help her get there."
During her brief stint on the city council, Nguyen made a name for herself as a pro-growth politician, living up to her promise of easing restrictions on business expansion and development in the city, which she felt was cash-strapped because of poor leadership. "Most of the other candidates in that race were anti-growth candidates," she says. While her opponents sought to curry favor among conservatives fed up with expensive redevelopment projects along Harbor Boulevard, Nguyen proposed even further economic revitalization, including what she liked to call "Platinum Triangle West," a Garden Grove version of Anaheim's Platinum Triangle urban-revitalization zone that never actually broke ground.
Nguyen says she distinguished herself by making Garden Grove more responsive to citizen's needs. "Let's control [economic growth] by making sure our businesses develop, and [let's] cut the red tape of city government to get permits to expand restaurants, expand banks," she says. "If you need more office space, let's get it. And if you're a homeowner and need a patio, let's get your patio. Let's not make you sit there for six months. That was my message. Let's continue what we're doing. Let's move Garden Grove forward."
The first sign of a split between Nguyen and her former friends in Orange County's Republican Party came last year, when Dina Nguyen (no relation), an attorney and Garden Grove Neighborhood Improvement Commission board member backed by Tran, ran for city council. According to several sources who spoke with the Weekly, Janet Nguyen felt threatened by the prospect of working alongside another female Vietnamese-American city council member.
"I don't have a lot to say about Janet Nguyen," Dina Nguyen says. "We had a confrontation where it was not very friendly. It was about how my fund-raiser lady was using her personal list of [donors], and I had no idea about that, and it was public record anyways. I'm not one to use other people's resources, and I have my own funds. She got very upset. She said very un-nice things."
According to one former Janet Nguyen supporter, Janet did everything she could to prevent Dina from winning her seat. "It was jealousy, selfishness, insecurity," the source says. "In politics, you work as a team. We don't live in a dictatorship; we live in a democracy. You work with people."
One person who claims he earned Janet's wrath for supporting Dina was Paul Lucas, an environmental consultant and political operative who says he admired Janet Nguyen until she yelled at him in public. "Basically, she didn't want to be sharing the spotlight of being the first Vietnamese-American woman on the Garden Grove City Council," he says. "That's the level of pettiness. It's embarrassing to even say these things because, normally, you don't attribute these things to adults."
Another was Janet Nguyen's former boss, Maddox, who consulted for Dina Nguyen's successful city council race shortly after he left the state legislature. "She kind of unloaded on me and, quite frankly, screamed at me over the phone, how dare I do it? I explained that this is how I earn my living, and [Dina Nguyen] is a qualified candidate."
Maddox says he's no longer on speaking terms with Janet Nguyen. "Frankly, I just got tired of her screaming at me," he says. "You can't go around as an elected official picking fights just to pick fights. This isn't high school.
"Janet is extremely ambitious, and that ambition is not tempered by maturity," he adds. "She has just managed to burn every bridge around here on her own."
Andrew Do, Nugyen's chief of staff, denied that there was any rivalry between his boss and Dina Nguyen, saying that the only issue of conflict involved Dina Nguyen's "improper" use of Janet Nguyen's contributer list, which was provided to Dina by Janet's former fundraiser. "This list included, among others, the supervisor's donors, close friends and extended family members from past fundraisers and from the supervisor's own wedding guest list that were not for public dissemination," Do says. "Understandably, the supervisor was distressed over such an apparent breach of confidentiality."
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By all accounts, including her own, Nguyen's spectacular falling-out with her former allies in the Orange County Republican Party reached the point of no return when she announced her desire to run in the special election for the First District county supervisor seat vacated by Lou Correa, who left the post for a successful run for the state senate. "Everybody was a supporter of Janet originally because she was brought up as the female face of the Van Tran camp," says Hao-Nhien Vu, an editor with Little Saigon's Nguoi Viet Daily News. "She wanted to be supervisor, but Trung Nguyen was older and closer to Van Tran, so they decided Trung is going to run for supervisor. If that seat didn't open up, she would probably still be in the Van Tran camp."
Almost immediately after Nguyen made her announcement, she received telephone calls from both Tran and Michael Schroeder asking her to back down. A source close to Janet Nguyen's campaign claims that both Tran and Schroeder called her and begged her not to run against Trung Nguyen, a Garden Grove School District board member backed by Tran.
The source further alleges that when Janet refused to back out of the race, Schroeder told her he'd "destroy" her.
Nguyen refuses to confirm that story. "Are you asking, did I have a conversation with Mike Schroeder? Yes," she says, adding that she also received a similar call from Tran. "Honestly, they said, 'We are supporting Trung; we are not supporting you. Get out of the race.'"
Schroeder denies any such conversation took place, but he doesn't hide his dislike of Nguyen. "I was one of her political supporters for a long time," he says. "But there was this growing unease that I had with her. She has no set views on anything, no discernible ideology at all other than what serves her at any point. Just blind ambition."
On the morning after election day in February 2007, Nguyen's refusal to back out of the race looked like a bad move. Although she'd shown a strong early lead, Trung Nguyen suddenly pulled ahead as the county registrar began counting absentee ballots, most of them filed by Vietnamese-American voters. When the final count was tallied, Trung Nguyen had beaten her by a mere seven votes. She demanded a recount of the absentee votes and ended up with a three-vote lead, officially winning the race. Immediately, Trung Nguyen contested the final vote count with the Fourth District Court of Appeals. Nguyen formed a legal-defense fund and began raising money to fight her case. On behalf of his client, Schroeder filed a California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) complaint against Nguyen, charging that soliciting donations for such a fund was illegal.
After being notified by the FPPC that the donations were in fact illegal, Nguyen promptly returned the cash, and in December, she paid a $5,000 fine. Do, Nguyen's chief of staff, claims the donations were solicited on the advice of her attorneys. "As soon as the supervisor knew [of the violation], she reversed the process and refunded the money," he says. "It was a technical violation, but there was no [criminal] intent."
Schroeder claims Nguyen lied for months about the existence of the fund. "She was directly asked five different times by the media if she had a legal-defense fund, and she lied and said no," he says. "If she thought it was legal, why did she lie?" After filing his FPPC complaint, he also sent a letter to the California attorney general's office demanding Nguyen be investigated for criminal wrongdoing.?But Shirley Grindle, a good-government activist who authored the county's campaign-disclosure ordinance, says Schroeder is a hypocrite because, while Nguyen returned her illegal contributions, Schroeder advised one of his many clients, disgraced former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, not to return a $2,204 contribution that exceeded by 200 percent the monetary donations allowed under county law. Grindle believes Schroeder, who also works for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, is simply harassing Nguyen so she'll have a harder time winning her June 2008 re-election campaign, thereby increasing Trung Nguyen's chances of winning the race.
"I don't want Mike Schroeder with his dirty fingers in the Board of Supervisors," Grindle says. "It's bad enough he has his hands in the DA and the Sheriff's Department. Mike Schroeder is one of the most evil persons we have in Orange County in terms of politics, and he needs to go. He's awful."
Although he doesn't share Grindle's personal dislike of Schroeder, Mark Bucher, treasurer of the Orange County Republican Party, wrote a November 2007 essay for the conservative magazine Red County arguing that Schroeder's attacks on Nguyen were destroying the party. "Trung Nguyen and his lawyer, Mike Schroeder, are attempting to weaken Supervisor Janet Nguyen through personal attacks, accusations of criminal behavior, and serial complaints and lawsuits," Bucher wrote. "Their goal is to damage her politically and financially, and thereby increase Trung's chances of winning the seat next year."
One of Nguyen's biggest election supporters is former Westminster city councilman Tony Lam, the first Vietnamese-American to win public office in Orange County. He agrees with Grindle and Bucher that Nguyen's independence from the likes of Schroeder and Tran explains why she's so dangerous.
"They got bitter because they got beaten," Lam says. "They want to drain her financial resources so she doesn't have a chance to win re-election against the machinery of Van Tran. He wants to be the mafia boss. They want her to kowtow to them, and she is too independent—and that is why I support her. I am sick and tired of the political bullshit by these people. They have to learn this is America, not Vietnam."
Tran refused to comment about Nguyen, except to point out he's not the only politician who doesn't get along with her. "Those who understand her best and speak the same language don't want to have anything to do with her. It's much more than her versus Van Tran. Politics is a people business, and you have to get along with people. It has to be give and take, and a lot of people say Janet only knows how to take."
For her part, Nguyen chafes at the word "independent," saying it carries a negative connotation. "I'm not sure if independent is the correct term," she says. "I don't agree with my husband 100 percent of the time, so don't expect me to agree with you 100 percent of the time. Because if I agree with you 100 percent of the time, why am I married to this other guy?"
In her first year on the job, however, Nguyen has lived up to that label, refusing to ally herself with either the Schroeder-aligned Pat Bates and Bill Campbell or the libertarian-oriented Chris Norby and John Moorlach. She was the only supervisor to vote against Norby's proposed ordinance allowing medical-marijuana patients to carry county-issued identification cards. Nguyen was also one of the few Vietnamese-American leaders to not actively support last year's headline-grabbing anti-communist boycott of Viet Weekly, a Garden Grove newspaper accused by many Little Saigon residents of supporting communism (see "Red Scare in Little Saigon," Aug. 17). Tran and Trung Nguyen played sympathetic roles in the boycott, but Janet Nguyen went no further than sending bottles of water to protesters. "My approach is a little different than Van [Tran] in my stand on communists," Nguyen says. "My family left [Vietnam] and my uncle was executed and my father was in the concentration camp, so there is no way you can say my family doesn't appreciate freedom. But we're in America and this is a newspaper, and if you don't like what they are writing, don't read it."
Although Nguyen's battle with Schroeder has earned her the most headlines, supporters such as Scott Weimer, president of the Garden Grove Downtown Business Association, say she has quietly but effectively worked to make county government responsive to her constituents' needs.
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"I have been a voter in this district for over 30 years, and this is the first time that I have ever seen a supervisor exhibit enough confidence in constituents to actually appropriate monies back to them to be used on projects of their own choosing, rather than government pork," Weimer says. "She is a very accessible individual to anyone in the district, and I believe, if given the opportunity to occupy the seat for a second term without the preoccupation of trying to survive the lawsuits and legal entanglements brought on by Schroeder, she will end up being recognized as the true populist that she is."
At press time, the district appeals court was still expected to rule at any moment whether Janet Nguyen will remain in office or if Trung Nguyen really won the race. "Obviously, I would like to win, but whichever way the court decides to go, I will accept," Trung Nguyen says.
Janet Nguyen is more focused on her long-term prospects. "My goal is to get myself re-elected in June," she says. "I'm enjoying my seat, and after that, you know, anything goes."