Inside a packed Costa Mesa hotel ballroom yesterday, Orange County's most enthusiastic conservative political activists met to hear candidate speeches and issue endorsements while paying homage to Saint Ronnie and excoriating gays, abortion rights, bureaucrats and, perhaps the most favored target of the day, employee unions.
The meeting of the local chapter of the California Republican Assembly (CRA) began with an invocation that asked God to insure that "people of good character and faith get elected," but ended three plus hours later with a whiff of scandal.
A handful of members wondered aloud: Had Van Tran, a candidate hoping to win the Republican primary nomination for the right to face Democrat Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez in November, quietly stolen a CRA endorsement from Quang Pham?
Pham, a rookie candidate, addressed the crowd first by noting that he's a Christian, husband, father and ex-Marine who emigrated with his family from Saigon at the age of ten. "I'm the only candidate in the race who has run a multi-million 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 and A session, Pham was asked about the extent of his aversions to abortion and gay rights, but didn't supply this crowd the red meat answers it wanted to hear. He opined that, while he's pro-life, he feels uncomfortable trying to dictate all decisions made by a doctor and a pregnant woman. He also said he believes marriage is only between a man and a woman, though he noted that he gives benefits to all of employees regardless of their sexuality.
"No!" an elderly man yelled while a few others booed.
"No booing!" yelled back convention chairman Craig Alexander.
(Pham told me later, "Hey, you gotta give me credit for not running from my beliefs.")
When it was his turn to speak, Tran--a veteran state assemblyman from Little Saigon--pounced.
"I am a lifelong Republican with Ronald Reagan principals and I'm against the gay and lesbian agenda," he said, winning applause. "I am a child of the Reagan Revolution. Loretta Sanchez took out my old boss, [ex-congressman] Bob Dornan, and now his old staffer is going to take her out! Less government! Less taxes! More freedom!"
On Sanchez, Tran explained, "We need a crusade to take out Loretta. She claims she is a moderate but she votes with [he raised his voice an octave] Nancy Pelosi!"
For this audience, Pelosi, Sanchez, Stalin, Mussolini and Castro are ideological soul mates. There was moaning, hissing and booing. Alexander frowned but didn't issue another warning.
"What's your name?" a man shouted.
"My name is short and it rhymes," said Tran. "It's Van Tran."
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. (Don't underestimate the value of this group's backing in a solid GOP county.) When the vote was announced Tran had 17 supporters--the bare minimum number he needed.
The man who may have supplied that decisive vote for Tran was Paul Hegyi. Hegyi doesn't work or live in Orange County. He is Tran's chief of staff at the state capitol. According to county tax assessor records I checked, he is a longtime Sacramento County resident and, until recently, a candidate for California's 10th Assembly seat, which includes Sacramento. To let Hegyi cast a vote, CRA officials declared him a member of the Stanton branch of Orange County's club, though he is registered to vote in Sacramento.
And there's this: The Stanton branch shouldn't have been allowed to participate in the 47th Congressional District endorsement vote because--unlike Anaheim, Fullerton, Garden Grove and Santa Ana--it's not in the district, according to Pham supporters. Political maps show that Stanton is in the 40th Congressional District which is represented by Rep. Ed Royce. But Tran allies claim that one house in Stanton is inside the 47th and therefore anyone from Stanton can vote.
The intrigue deepens if you connect additional dots. Tran is a close protege of Mike Schroeder, the Santa Ana chiropractic insurance company owner, 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 Sacramento assembly seat.
Mike McGill, a CRA member, told me that he was disgusted that Hegyi was allowed to vote in the Pham-Tran contest.
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"This is the worst case of political carpet bagging I've ever heard of," said McGill. "He's a Sacramento politician who flies 500 miles down here to vote in an Orange County election. Wow. It doesn't look right."
"The only thing that's prohibited is that he [Hegyi] can't be a member of two of our groups at the same time," said Whitacre, who described himself as a Tran supporter. He called the flap "nothing but sour grapes."
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 rules], it certainly does nothing but weaken our credibility as an organization," he said.
Attempts to reach Tran and Hegyi were unsuccessful.
In a press statement issued Sunday morning, Pham said Tran's allies had "clandestinely stacked the vote."
"This typical Sacramento behavior is the last thing we need in Washington, D.C." Pham said in the press release.
He's calling on CRA officials to "void" Tran's endorsement.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly
(rscottmoxley@ocweekly dot com)