Their Man Tan

Tan: bad news is good news. Illustration by Bob Aul

Someone—Jesus? Satan? I can't say—loves Tan Nguyen. The Republican candidate for the 47th Congressional District had no chance of winning against four-term incumbent Loretta Sanchez—until this month, when someone mailed a Spanish-language letter to about 14,000 Latino voters in the 47th Congressional District warning them that illegal immigrants can't vote. A state attorney general investigation quickly concluded Nguyen's campaign was behind the letter and raided his offices and home on Oct. 20, seeking answers. Orange County Republican Party Chair Scott Baugh publicly asked for Nguyen's resignation shortly afterward, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared the letter a "hate crime."

It was the best thing that could've happened to Nguyen. He still has no chance of winning on Election Day, but Nguyen has won news coverage unthinkable for a second-rate candidate in a safe Democratic district. After the raid, he appeared on national radio (Bill O'Reilly's The Radio Factor) and local shows (most of the programs on KABC-AM 790 and KFI-AM 640), feted by hosts who didn't so much ask Nguyen questions as build up his undeserved reputation for candor. Sympathetic listeners hailed him as a new American hero.

After each show, Nguyen invited supporters to come out for a rally outside his campaign's Garden Grove offices on Oct. 28 at noon.

And so about 200 true believers came out on a blazing Saturday to hear Nguyen speak—elderly Vietnamese and California Coalition for Immigration Reform chair Barbara Coe, apparently forgiving Nguyen despite his campaign's alleged misuse of fake CCIR letterhead; a black couple from Santa Ana's ritzy Floral Park neighborhood and a smelly Mexican whose long beard and turban made him look like a Sikh; a man with a megaphone shouting that Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez is "immoral" for supporting "immoral Mexican illegal aliens from Mexico"; and a Vietnamese woman dressed in fishnet stockings.

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No one seemed to care that Nguyen had changed his explanation for the letter so often that even fawning conservative talk show hosts couldn't keep track. First Nguyen denied his campaign had anything to do with the forged letter. Then he rescinded the claim, stating he didn't "authorize" or "approve" the letter, and he fired a rogue campaign worker whom he alleged was responsible. Then he rehired her, claiming once again that his campaign had nothing to do with the letter, although he stood by its content. At a press conference two days after the raid by the attorney general's office, Nguyen again denied any ties to the letter, then handed out copies of what he claimed was the real letter, insinuating Sanchez was behind it.

Such flip-flopping characterized his Saturday rally. Accompanied by his wife and infant son, Nguyen shook the hands of supporters; some of them offered testimonials for the Vietnamese-language media.

"Tan was going to be the first Vietnamese congressman—and that was too much," a self-identified dentist shouted to applause. "Would they do that if Tan was black or Tan was Latino?"

"No!" shouted the true believers.

Nguyen hopped onto the bed of a truck parked outside his campaign office, like Huey Long or Juan Pern. His supporters swarmed him. Nguyen acknowledged their cheers with a wave.

"You know that I will always stand by you," he began, before turning his attention to Sanchez.

Nguyen abandoned his insinuation that Sanchez was involved in favor of a direct claim: "Ms. Sanchez's fingerprints are all over this," Nguyen declared, exciting the crowd. Nguyen alleged Sanchez's campaign had translated the controversial letter for the press, and he claimed Sanchez had prior knowledge of the attorney general's raid. "Ms. Sanchez then stood by, smiling, while the campaign office of her opponent—who was winning the election—was raided."

Then Nguyen took his words back, saying he didn't know if Sanchez was behind the letter. Then he changed positions again. "I do know she speaks Spanish," he suddenly spurted. "She must've known."

Nguyen went on like this for about 10 minutes, at one point adding that Sanchez was not "stopping buckets of gasoline to fuel the fire to stoke the inferno." He then accused her of racial pandering, saying she cloaked herself in the Mexican and Vietnamese flags. The remarks drew cheers from the crowd, many of whom held signs of support for Nguyen in the yellow and red of the retired flag of South Vietnam.

Nguyen finished and hopped off the truck. The woman in fishnet stockings promptly took his place and launched into "Stand by Our Tan," a Vietnamese karaoke version of the Tammy Wynette classic. She strutted across the narrow truck bed, heaving her shoulders and bosoms in time with the song's chintz.

Then she sang it again.

And again.

And Nguyen worked his true believers without rest.


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