Orange County supervisor race a window into changing region

FILE: The Asian Garden Mall along Bolsa Avenue in Westminster is a landmark in Little Saigon. Westminster sits in Orange County's Board of Supervisors District 1. Vying for the district seat are a Latina candidate and an Asian-American incumbent.
FILE: The Asian Garden Mall along Bolsa Avenue in Westminster is a landmark in Little Saigon. Westminster sits in Orange County's Board of Supervisors District 1. Vying for the district seat are a Latina candidate and an Asian-American incumbent.
Dorian Merina/KPCC

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The race for Orange County’s 1st Board of Supervisors District is a window into how complex the county’s shifting demographic and political landscape has become as the region becomes increasingly diverse.

The candidates are incumbent Andrew Do, a Vietnamese-American Republican who narrowly won his supervisor seat in a special election last year, and Michele Martinez, a Mexican-American Democrat who grew up in Santa Ana and serves on the City Council there.

The district is a microcosm of new Orange County. It includes Santa Ana, which is 78 percent Latino, and Westminster and Garden Grove, where large Asian communities have put down roots along with Latinos.

In a county that was once mostly white and a conservative stronghold, both district candidates say their background has shaped their perspective.

“Some of the issues that my community faces in Santa Ana are no different than in the Vietnamese or the Korean community," said Martinez. Her father was born in Mexicali and her mother is a  third-generation Californian of Mexican descent.

For Martinez, the common issues that cross ethnic groups include the need for affordable housing and public transportation, both of which she said matter to working-class immigrant families.

Do grew up in Garden Grove in a Vietnamese refugee family. Unlike Orange County’s old Republican guard, he said the immigrant experiment shapes his views, too.

He talks about rising crime and getting tougher on offenders, but he also discusses integrating immigrants into the community and making after-school sports programs for low-income kids affordable to families.

“Back in the old days, I think Republicans didn’t have quite the same kind of perspective like, say, a Republican like myself would have today, because they didn’t come here as immigrants," he said.

Orange County has been gradually trending away from the right as its white conservative base erodes and a more diverse population of Latinos and Asians expands. Even in the Vietnamese-American community, which has traditionally leaned right, younger people are breaking with their elders — like Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen, a Democrat who is running for Congress.

Asian-American Republican candidates in Orange County have done well: In a special election last year, Do beat out former Supervisor Lou Correa, a Latino Democrat, by a handful of votes. That victory made Do the third Asian-American Republican on the five-member county supervisors' board, winning a district in which Latinos make up a large chunk of the population.

How does this happen? According to Karthick Ramakrishnan, University of California, Riverside political scientist, there are two reasons. There's a growing number of Asian-American voters who vote along ethnic lines. Also, immigrants — Latinos and Asians alike — don't tend to turn out to vote in large numbers, whether because of their immigration status or a lack of trust in government.

But there's another factor, he said, that gives conservative candidates of color in Orange County an edge.

"I think what you're seeing is that Asian-Americans are doing well in Orange County because they are drawing support not only from fellow Asian-American voters, but also presumably from white Republicans in the area," Ramakrishnan said. "The Asian-Americans who are winning these supervisor races in Orange County are conservative."

White conservatives, though declining in number, will vote the ticket, Ramakrishnan said. This is an advantage that doesn't favor Latino Democrats, even if the district has a large Latino population.

District 1 boundaries were also redrawn in 2011, and some say this diluted the voting power of Latino constituents.

"You water the gas down with water, you're not going to get the same amount of push and pull in the engine," said Art Montez, an activist with the local League of United Latin American Citizens.

Montez notes that Correa won the supervisor's race in District 1 in 2004, when district boundaries made the Latino vote more concentrated. But the redrawn lines added part of Fountain Valley, a city that is 49 percent non-Latino white and only 13 percent Latino. The rest of Garden Grove was also added into the district, and it is a city where Latino and Asian population sizes are about equal.

Montez said the redrawn district makes it harder for Latino candidates, especially Democrats, to win. Montez said and other activists contemplated filing a Voting Rights Act lawsuit to challenge the redrawn lines and he said that is still a possibility.

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