We'll have to excuse Ray Cordova, a veteran Orange County labor activist, an overlooked dead ringer for almost any character on The Sopranos, and the moderator of an Oct. 17 debate to replace Representative Loretta Sanchez in the 46th Congressional District, a slot once occupied by legendary right-winger Robert K. Dornan. An inattentive Cordova produced several senior moments, twice forgetting pending questions to candidates Joe Dunn, Bao Nguyen, Jordan Brandman and Lou Correa.
Cordova also doesn't know when to be appreciative. Most seasoned political operatives would have dropped to their knees and thanked a higher power that their public policy event—especially on a gorgeous Saturday morning in Southern California—had drawn an overflow crowd of more than 120 people. Instead of welcoming late-comers standing in the back of the room, he incredibly ordered them to hit the street.
Good judgment can't find this union boss lately. A week before the debate, when he should have been keeping his mouth shut and remaining publicly neutral, Cordova announced he'd already made his choice. He declared in a statement, “I am pleased to endorse Lou for Congress.”
A union official backing Correa out of the gate over Nguyen, Garden Grove's mayor and a feisty union representative, is ironic. The former Santa Ana state senator may be the most pro-corporate candidate in the race. He's a man welcomed at Republican gatherings. In fact, he has been the local GOP's favorite Democrat for years, in part because he'll field their calls and consider their concerns. Perhaps Cordova—who ignited past controversy by backing Tom Daly, another pro-business Democrat, over a union employee—snuggles with likely winners for the sake of post-election influence.
Having covered the district for two decades but without knowing any meaningful current polling data, I'd consider Correa and Dunn the frontrunners, with about 230 days to go before the June 7 primary that so far hasn't enticed Republican challengers. Both are veterans with records, allies and avenues to the mother's milk of politics: campaign cash. Correa enjoys his Sacramento corporate and police-union lobbyist connections. A former leader of the California Medical Association and the State Bar of California, as well as a state senator, Dunn can count on wealthy lawyers and doctors to contribute. In comparison, while Nguyen and Brandman—a first-term Anaheim City Council member—shouldn't be underestimated, neither has such established financial resources to fund his underdog message to voters.
The four candidates are handsome, personable and articulate, but that's not all they have in common. At this debate at the League of United Latin American Citizens offices in Garden Grove, the Q&A—a “predictable liberal checklist,” blogger Vern Nelson accurately observed—underscored that each campaign is content at the moment to bond over common beliefs rather than attack. Indeed, while some past Orange County congressional primary debates have come close to slug fests, these hopefuls displayed exceptional politeness.
Based on claimed stances, they all agreed on keeping the 14th Amendment (anyone born here is automatically a U.S. citizen); seriously addressing climate change; increasing the minimum wage; decreasing income inequality; reducing the power of banks and corporations; backing international trade deals that are only “fair” to workers; advocating a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine; toughening gun regulations; discouraging the bashing of immigrants and rebuking Donald Trump; aiding the homeless with more resources; ending private, for-profit prisons; bolstering voting rights; and enacting universal health-care coverage.Only one major area sparked disagreement: the legalization of marijuana in California, and the differences were, as you would expect, generational. Nguyen and Brandman, the younger candidates, have few, if any, reservations. “The time has come,” said Brandman. “It's as simple as that.” However, Correa and Dunn, both parents, advocate more cautious approaches that consider addiction issues and the impact on kids. “I share Lou's view,” Dunn said, who nonetheless predicted legalization “is coming.”
The candidates, each of whom describes himself as a “fighter,” possess interesting backstories:
• Nguyen, whose parents fled Vietnam by boat following the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975, was born in a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand after the family's vessel was attacked by pirates; they were rescued by Buddhist monks.
• Dunn, a Minnesota native who helped to create the Voice of OC, was raised in a family of hunters; while he espouses progressive policies, he believes the gun-control debate wrongly focuses on gun owners instead of what he sees as money-hungry gun manufacturers. • Brandman—who, like Nguyen, announced in recent weeks he is gay—comes from a family that escaped the Holocaust.
• Correa “grew up in the hood” in Anaheim, witnessed horrific violence and drug use, and got an education while his mother worked as a $1.65-per-hour hotel maid.
AARP and country-club Caucasians typically pack Republican debates in OC. Latinos, Vietnamese and African-Americans dominated this crowd. I'd also estimate at least half of the attendees were younger than 30. But given that all four candidates won applause at different times, it's difficult to assess a favorite.
Little Saigon's Vietnamese community has repeatedly flexed its electoral muscle in the past decade and produced folks such as Janet Nguyen, currently a GOP state senator, who didn't hide congressional ambitions. In the last redistricting, Sanchez cut a deal that removed a chunk of Vietnamese voters from her district and increased Latinos so that Republicans have a whopping 19-point voter-registration deficit. In exchange, Dana Rohrabacher—the kooky, ranting Costa Mesa Republican—won a safer, nearby district with fewer Democrats.
That gerrymandering seems to help Correa's odds. But he is not leaving anything to chance. In a January special election to fill Janet Nguyen's supervisorial seat after her elevation to the Sacramento post, he lost to Republican Andrew Do, a relative novice, by 43 votes. Reminded of that outcome on Saturday, Correa's face contorted before a smile emerged. He then said confidently, “I've learned to just stay in my lane, stay focused, and I'll be okay.”