It's easy to imagine state Assemblyman Van Tran selling himself as an anti-big-government disciple of H.L. Mencken, the feisty libertarian journalist of the last century.
Mencken argued that the state constitutes "a power that stands over [citizens] constantly, ever alert for new chances to squeeze [taxpayers]." He viewed government as out of control—and that was in 1927, before Franklin D. Roosevelt.
During his 2004 campaign, Tran promised he'd lead the fight to eliminate "excess in state government." His political website displayed his picture—somber-faced, studying a mound of paper—beneath the headline: "Van Tran sets his sights on fixing California's budget mess."
"We must cut waste," said Tran during the campaign that would make him the first Vietnamese-American in the state legislature. "I will make restoring the fiscal health of California my top priority."
But after six months in office, it's obvious the 40-year-old lawyer has a very different top priority: his own political career. Worse, he doesn't mind spending taxpayer money to advance it.
In the first week of July, Tran simultaneously described California's fiscal condition as in "dire straits," railed against the politics-as-usual mentality among Democrats, touted his own "good conscience"—and then spent tens of thousands of public dollars to send voters unsolicited political mail.
His "Dear Taxpayer" letter came in a large, two-sided brochure printed by a state agency and mailed at the expense of the deficit-ridden state treasury. "Given the past few years, many Taxpayers feel powerless over how much of their money Sacramento takes each year," he wrote. "The truth is, Taxpayers need to be empowered. Taxpayers need to be protected from special interests in Sacramento who take and take without giving. And Taxpayers need to keep more of their money so they can provide a better living for their families."
The Taxpayer-funded message doesn't mention that Tran accepted a whopping 12 percent pay raise for legislators but depicted him as a man determined to fight government waste.
"Politicians spend until there is nothing left," he wrote. "To prevent the next budget crisis we will start to save now for whatever emergency should arise. Let's make politicians plan for the next crisis—not the next election."
The onetime aide to ex-Representative Robert K. Dornan is a nice fellow with an impressive background—an immigrant, well-educated, hard-working. But the freshman assemblyman is oozing hypocrisy like a Sacramento pro. The mailers hit mailboxes as Tran eyes state Senate seats occupied by Democrat Joe Dunn (termed out) and Republican John Campbell (the likely GOP nominee to replace Congressman Christopher Cox). A June 25 OrangeCountyRegisterarticle said Tran is more interested in Campbell's seat, but Republican Party officials are trying to persuade him to run in Dunn's district against Assemblyman Tom Umberg, the weakened Democrat who recently confessed a four-year extramarital affair with an aide. (See the Weekly's"Tour of Booty" July 1, 2005.)
Tran press secretary Paul G. Hegyi didn't know how much the mailers cost—"That's going to take quite a bit of research," he said. But he claimed the brochures are unrelated to the assemblyman's interest in higher elective office. The mailer had "been on the calendar for months," he said. "We finalized it, like, in the spring, and it's just now getting out to people."
Couldn't Tran's campaign committee have paid the bill?
"No, it was a standard mailer," said Hegyi.
But doesn't Tran see a contradiction in the fact that he used tax money to tell voters that he's against government waste when there's a $20 billion deficit in the state treasury?
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"The money [for the mailer] is in our office budget and we have to spend it by the end of the year or lose it," he said.
Imagine Tran's credibility if he'd been strong enough to match his rhetoric with his deeds. Symbolism? Sure, but that's leadership.
The assemblyman hasn't made a secret of his long-term desire to become the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress. And there's no doubt he'll reach for that goal by selling himself as the anti-tax man. But Mencken might say that Tran is already a member of a special group: "the huge pack of morons who cluster at the public trough."