Meet Joe Dovinh, Phu’s ‘Democratic’ Challenger





Many controversies swirl around poor Joe Dovinh, the man who’s challenging popular Phu Nguyen in June’s Democratic primary for termed-out Van Tran’s old seat in the 68th Assembly District.  When I brought up a few of those controversies in a comments thread last month, and referred to him as a “goofball Trannie,” he quickly noticed, jumped onto the thread, provided his phone number, and challenged us to call and talk to him before continuing to diss him.

So, the paragon of fairness, your humble blogger met up with Joe at a Garden Grove Starbucks yesterday.  And while I remain a staunch supporter of Phu, and still harbor suspicions about the purpose and provenance of Joe’s candidacy, I’m happy to report that I can dismiss at least a couple of the rumors dogging him.

The amiable, well-spoken Mr. Dovinh arrived at Starbucks twenty minutes late, apologetically explaining, “I was at a press event.”

“That’s okay.  You were at a press event?” I responded, feigning surprise.

“Yes!  Your friend Phu was there too!”

“Oh really!  Phu was there too?”  Not wanting to get off on a bad foot, I didn’t mention that I was perfectly aware that Joe had just shown up uninvited to an event that the Vietnamese press had scheduled specifically for Phu.  (Joe’s event had already happened last week.)

We both tape-recorded our interview, equally concerned for accuracy.  Since we chatted for the better part of an hour, I explained to him that I would only publish excerpts, and that if I left out anything he considered important, he’s welcome to add it in the comments here.  (And YOU have to read the whole thing before you get to any juicy Dina Details.)

Clearing the air…

OJ:   I hope you understand the suspicions that Orange County Democrats have of you.  We have a great candidate, the perfect candidate, to turn this district blue, and get closer to a 2/3 majority in Sacramento so we can finally start getting some good things done in this state.  And then, out of the blue, someone who’s totally tied in with the local Republican machine, particularly Van Tran’s crowd, suddenly becomes a Democrat and decides to run against Phu in the primary.  Naturally we suspect that you’re just in this race as a distraction and nuisance, and to waste Phu’s resources.  Are we wrong about that?  And what did make you decide to become a Democrat a few weeks ago?

Dovinh:  First, I object to your question.  Because the way you prefaced it presupposes that I was not a Democrat previously.  Your question was, what made me decide to become a Democrat a few weeks ago?  That’s a misstatement.  Because, prior to registering as a Democrat, I was registered as “Decline To State.”  That doesn’t mean I was not a Democrat.  It just means “I decline to state the fact that I am a Democrat.”  That’s my understanding of Decline to State – it’s for people who don’t want to declare what party affiliation they are.

OJ:  Well, that’s a unique take…

Dovinh:  Yeah, I’m just giving you my…

OJ:  I wish we could count all Decline to State voters as Democrats.

Dovinh:  I’m not arguing that, I’m just explaining why I was a DTS.  And prior to that… well I’ve always been a Democrat.  I’ve never registered as a Republican.  So, any supposition that I was a Republican is hearsay and completely unfounded.

OJ:  I didn’t say you were a Republican…

Dovinh:  No, you did not, you did not, but… I’m saying there’s some innuendos, right?  There are allegations out there, there are accusations…

OJ:  That you’re tied in to the Republican establishment…

Dovinh:  Yes, your characterization is fair, because it’s out there… and I appreciate you giving me this chance to clear things up.  And the burden’s on me to clear this up, and without this opportunity you’re giving me, there’s always going to be this lingering doubt as to what my party affiliation is.  So I just want to make it perfectly clear that what you stated factually … is true, I was registered as DTS, simply because I did not want to publicize my party affiliation.  Now, at the time of my candidacies in 2008, I was already registered as a Democrat, although those races were not partisan races.

OJ:  But I understand you didn’t register as a Democrat until this February.

Dovinh:   That’s not true.  That’s not true.  February is just when I re-registered because I changed address.

[FACT CHECK:  The Registrar of Voters confirms that Joe indeed registered as a Democrat in Feb. 2008;  so I don’t know why all the nonsense about DTS = Democrat was necessary.]

Regarding McCain, Palin, and Sackcloth

OJ:  So, do you still feel that John McCain and Sarah Palin were the best choice to lead this country?  Or were you wrong back in 2008?

Dovinh:  My support was for John McCain.  And it was limited to the fact that Senator McCain contributed greatly – tremendously – to the growth of our Vietnamese-American community.  He was the author and sponsor of the ROVR Act – the humanitarian operations that brought over literally hundreds of thousands of people who were imprisoned in Communist re-education camps after the War.  Those people who were imprisoned more than three years qualified for US immigration, thanks to John McCain.  Thanks to his work, we have a larger community, a resettled community that’s assimilating well into the mainstream.  And the impact of his work is felt daily here.

And this district, the 68th, went for John McCain.  So I’m correct to say that I am reflecting the values of my community, which is very pro-McCain.   Now, with hindsight as to my support:  I feel that my decision left room for misunderstanding and criticism, which I fully expect as fair and proper, because I did support McCain for the Presidency in 2008.

OJ:  I’d say your biggest mistake was that the McCain of 2008 was not the McCain of the 80s or 90s.  In 2008 McCain stood for endless and expanded war in the Middle East, and a continuation of Bush’s soak-the-poor economic policies and reckless de-regulation.  Then on top of that, his choice of running mate – how could you risk putting that woman a heartbeat away from the Presidency?

Dovinh:  I agree with all that.  I disagreed with his pick for VP, I don’t think she was well vetted, I don’t believe she was qualified, and I never endorsed Sarah Palin.  However, I completely agree with your characterization of his platform for his Presidency in 2008.  While I support John McCain personally for his work as Senator helping resettle Vietnamese immigrants, I do not agree with his agenda.  Particularly the things that you mentioned.  His stance on war in the Middle East.  His stance on issues related to the economy.  Health reform.  I totally disagree with him on that.  I was completely with my party on health care reform.  I was completely with my party on an exit strategy for the wars in the Middle East.

Election Night 2008

OJ:  I’ll never forget where I was the night of November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama took the White House. The breathtaking feeling of history being made, a black man becoming President of the United States, 150 years after slavery!   The overwhelming relief of having eight years of Republican misrule grind to an end!  I was with the Debbie Cook team having a victory party (just for Obama as it turned out) at the Centerfield Bar and Grill in Huntington Beach.  Do you remember where you were?

Dovinh:  I do remember where I was.  That night I was doing election coverage for a newspaper, the Viet Star, which I founded – a local Vietnamese weekly that’s still in circulation.  At that point in time it was only a few months old.  I was editor-in-chief of the weekly, and I was covering election night coverage at various different campaign offices, mostly Vietnamese-American offices.

I was also freelancing for a couple other media outlets, and was with some reporters of some other outlets, as far as roaming around to the different offices.  I went to Janet Nguyen’s election offices, I went to Judge John Nguyen’s office…

OJ:  I know him!

Dovinh:  … I went to the election office of the Republicans here, I went to several offices, and by the end of the night I was quite exhausted.  I went home and I didn’t get to watch on TV the final count of the election.  But I did hear it from people calling.

OJ:  So that local Republican office, that was Van Tran’s office, right?

Dovinh:  That’s right.

[…and maybe that IS how it happened…]

Election Night 2008 at Van Tran's office

On the Grand Accomplishments of Assemblyman Van Tran

OJ:   Assemblyman Van Tran is generally described as your good friend and mentor, and you recently said on Vietnamese radio that, as assemblyman, you would “follow in his footsteps.”  What did you mean by that?  What has he done that you consider admirable?

Dovinh:   Good friend, yes;  I never said he was a mentor.  I said he was a trailblazer, and I do look up to him.

OJ:  What has he accomplished in the Assembly that you…

Dovinh:  Could I finish answering your question?  If I may… I believe Van Tran has done his best for this community – as best as he could, as Assemblyman.  He’s had eight years, right?  So.  The question posed is:   Is this Van Tran at his best?  Is that all he has to give?  [he goes off on a tangent speculating on Van Tran’s future] …For me, I like some of what I see, that he has accomplished.  For the Vietnamese-Americans.

The Vietnamese-American Heritage Flag [he points to a pin he is wearing] is a very important symbol of our identity.  And, while councilman of Garden Grove, Van Tran had sponsored a movement to get recognition for this flag, this flag which Vietnamese and our veterans wear very proudly, and that’s a contribution that Van Tran had begun as councilman.

When he went to the Assembly, he worked on some Assembly bills that were very popular with the Vietnamese Americans.  Such as the bill for the New Year Pastries.  It sounds very common, but it’s something that the Vietnamese wanted to protect, as part of their identity and heritage.

OJ:  These were endangered, these New Year Pastries?  What did the bill do?

Dovinh:  It, um, really.. a bunch of.. [laughs] … I don’t know the details of that bill, but it’s a bill that a lot of Vietnamese Americans here took an interest in, and it helped us kind of raise the cultural aspect of the Vietnamese community for our Lunar New Year celebration.

OJ:  So, it was a sort of resolution honoring the New Year Pastry?

Dovinh:  Yes, sir.  Yes, sir.  I know, it sounds de minimis to the mainstream.  [Wow, looked that up – he did use a Latin phrase.  And yes it does sound de minimis.] But to us, it’s a symbol of our contribution to American society.  Bánh chưng. It’s like Apple Pie to America.  And so it’s a symbol of our heritage and he raised that part of our culinary culture.  If nothing else, it’s a feel-good bill, which I think a lot of people here appreciated.

So, symbolism aside.  I am with you one hundred percent when you pose the question, What has Van Tran done substantively for the community?  That is my question too.

OJ:  Mm-hm.  Eight years.

[UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention (by both Phu and Art) that Van Tran’s Bánh chưng bill was not a “resolution in support” of these pastries, but a relaxation of health standards for this particular item.  Thanks to the bill, these delicacies can now be served to you when they are long past their safe date. A typical Republican anti-regulation measure, hypocritically passed under a guise of “multicultural” “sensitivity,” passed as a sop to a special-interest lobby of unscrupulous shopkeepers and restauranteurs, and certainly not in the interest of your average Viet – if they even know about it.  Some achievement, some footsteps to follow in.]

Why Joe Dovinh is better than Phu Nguyen

Dovinh:   Phu is a young man, with limited life experience.  He’s only 32 years old.  His only claim to fame is having been president of a student union.  And during that time, he was the organizer of a successful Tet event, a New Year’s celebration, which he worked on in conjunction with a lot of other students, and community organizers.  This contribution to the community is very limited.  His involvement in politics is limited to his volunteer work with Loretta Sanchez.  And his endorsements are also very limited – to a few people he’s worked with.  And so, that’s worth some praise.  [Note: this is a laughably truncated reckoning of Phu’s achievements.]

OJ:  Wait – did you just say his endorsements are “limited?”  He’s got endorsements from all over the state, about a dozen Democratic legislators, he’s got Loretta Sanchez, Lou Correa, Jose Solorio, all of Orange County’s most prominent Democrats – what are you talking about?  What endorsements do you have?

Dovinh:  You don’t know that, but I gave you a list, that’s okay.  [This was ill-advised of him, this line of attack.  Joe’s list has nine folks, the most prominent of whom are anti-gay ex-GG-Mayor Bruce Broadwater, and Benny Diaz.  ¿Serio, Benito?] I’m not trying to outdo him on endorsements.  That is not my goal in this campaign, to get lots of endorsements.  I got into this campaign a little bit later than Phu.  Phu had already lined up his supporters and endorsements.  So, as far as successfully obtaining those endorsements, I’ve congratulated him!

OJ:  Well, you did say his endorsements were limited.

Dovinh:  No, when I say they’re limited, they’re limited.  You can count them. And the effect of those endorsements is limited, as far as this district is concerned.  People generally do not vote for candidates because of endorsements.  That’s not the reason why they vote.  I’m not minimizing the endorsements.  But the election is not going to be won on endorsements.  It’s talking to people like you…

OJ:  Talking to people…

Dovinh:   Talking to the public, letting them know where I stand.

[FACT CHECK – DCCC member Benny Diaz, listed as one of Joe’s nine endorsements, never endorsed Joe and never suggested that he did.  Does anybody want to check with Bruce Broadwater, Armondo (sic) Ruiz, Ricardo Mendoza, Chan Sun Chung, Dave Vo Esq, June Dinh, Chau Tran, or Alexandra Van-Khanh Le?  SOMEBODY must have endorsed Joe!]

Taking on MinuteMansoor

OJ:  My biggest worry regarding your candidacy is this:  Suppose you won the primary, then it would be you running against Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor in November.  Mansoor is not just your garden-variety Republican, he’s a deeper sort of evil, the charismatic, acceptable face of the Minutemen, and a legendary union-basher.  But it’s become obvious that he has an alliance with your good friend Van Tran, supporting him in his run against Loretta Sanchez in return for being shown around Little Saigon and introduced to the Vietnamese voters here.  How can we expect that you would really try hard to beat Mansoor, and do you have any criticisms of him you’d like to make?

Dovinh:  I know very little about him. I have met him, I’ve seen him in Costa Mesa.  I was there promoting a resolution recognizing the Vietnamese Heritage Flag.  I was happy to be there giving my two-minute speech on the resolution.  And for that, I applaud him, as Mayor.  I don’t agree with his politics…

OJ:  What don’t you agree with?  How would you differentiate yourself from him, if you ended up running against him?

Dovinh:  His background is law enforcement, right?  He takes a law-enforcement approach to immigration, which is something I disagree with entirely.  I think immigration is a political issue, an economic issue, a social and cultural issue.  We already have a very healthy Hispanic culture and community here.  I think most of them are pro-immigration…

I’m fully in support of legal immigration, that I can state with certainty.  I fully support full integration of people who are here legally.  And the ones who are here illegally, I’m going to be working very hard to find a resolution to their plight.

Issues of Interest

When I began to ask what he considered the greatest problems and challenges facing California, he pulled out a handwritten list.  “I’ve been keeping notes,” he said, “these are some petitions that I’m very interested in.”

When I pointed out that this list was not legislation, but initiatives that people were trying to get on November’s ballot, he agreed;  but insisted that they still showed what his values are and what sort of legislation he would support.  Fair enough.


Mr. Dovinh wants to be sure you don't think this is his hand. It is only here for illustration purposes. His hand is a little darker.

He generally took the progressive position on most of these initiatives, although he also said he “differs with his party” sometimes because he’s a “fiscal conservative.”  I argued that there is nothing un-Democratic about being fiscally conservative, which I defined as not spending any government money without raising revenue to cover it.  He agreed with that.

He was unfamiliar with the two bills I consider most exciting – AB 656 (the oil severance fee to fund higher education) and SB 810 (single-payer universal healthcare for California) – but when I described them he was supportive.  He says he backs the Obamacare bill, and opposes the attempt to repeal AB 32.  He wants the budget to be passed by a simple majority rather than 2/3, to get past all the gridlock in Sacramento.  He’s enthusiastic about getting Jerry Brown elected governor.  All decent, unobjectionable positions.

Joe’s Campaign

OJ:  How much money have you raised so far for your campaign?  [This question is germane to the more important one of whether he’s serious about winning, or just trying to be a nuisance to Phu.]

Dovinh:  Very limited.  I’ve contributed about $5000 of my own money.  I’ve collected about $5000 in contributions.  So I’m working with a very small budget.  But my expenditures are limited to signage…

OJ:  Yeah I saw a bunch of those today…

Dovinh:  …and some printed material.  So, I run a very lean campaign.  It’s powered by volunteers, it’s grass roots, I’m not spending thousands of…

OJ:  How many volunteers do you have?

Dovinh:   I have many!  I have at least twenty-five volunteers, who work five to ten hours a week.  They showed up in large numbers at my previous fundraisers, there was over 150 people, I have another fundraiser this weekend, you’re welcome to come.  The amount of money I’ve mentioned has come in really small amounts, I haven’t got any big checks.  I haven’t got any checks over $500, $600.  But these small donations come from many people.  So, I’m proud of that fact because it shows I have grass roots support.

“Media & Communications Businessman,” or “Court Reporter?”

OJ:   You put “media communications businessman” as your ballot designation, while some claim your real occupation is court reporter.  Are you saying you make most of your money going on radio and TV?

Dovinh:   Yes!  My original choice was “Media & Communications Businessman” – but they don’t allow ampersands.  I should have used a slash or hyphen, but I just went with “media communications businessman.”  [a bit missing while I turned over cassette] Now, do I get money for being an anchorman or host?  No, I’m not paid by the TV station.  But the direct benefit to me is when there are legal services that the law office requires, I get to fill that order.  For example, service of process.  I can serve someone.  I’m a registered process server.  For fifty dollars an assignment!  I do legal interpreting in the courts.  [NOT “court reporting!”] I do small claims filing for people.  I do things that don’t require a law degree or a bar license to practice.  And I help my friend Dina Nguyen, who’s a Republican.  And there lies some confusion!

Dina Nguyen:  Chercez la Femme

OJ:  That’s right.  Now, my readers will be upset with me if I don’t ask you a few personal questions.

Dovinh:  I understand, go ahead.

OJ:   The word on the street is that you’re now living with Dina.  [Garden Grove councilwoman, Republican and well-known Van Tran acolyte, aka “Trannie.”] This of course brings up two interesting questions:  First, did you move in with her in order to be in the 68th AD, or were you already living in the 68th AD?

Dovinh:  I’ve lived in the 68th for several years.  My last home address, from which I ran for Coastline Community College District in 2008, is within the district.

OJ:  Okay, and #2, does this mean you’re getting divorced?

Dovinh:  Bolsavik misinforms – of course, with his own agenda – as to my living arrangement and my status.  And some of the other local, Vietnamese newspapers picked up on it incorrectly also.  My status is DIVORCED.

OJ:  Already divorced.

Dovinh:  Divorced, as of last December.  2009.

OJ:  And now Dina’s your girlfriend.

Dovinh:  Uh… I’ll go there!  [??] But I have been living in the district a long time.  Including my legal date of separation is over four years ago.  So therefore the question of marital status, as of the time of that posting, is inaccurate.

OJ:  Well, I’ll straighten that out on the Orange Juice then.

Dovinh:  Thank you.  Actually the confusion with some of the local papers is because the same Vietnamese word can mean either “divorced” or “divorcING.”

OJ:  Wow.  What a flawed tongue.  Then in Vietnamese, I’m twice divorcing!

Dovinh  [laughs]

[FACT CHECK:  OC Courts have no record of a Dovinh divorce in the last five years.  But it IS true is that his previous address is within the 68th, so at least he’s not a carpetbagger, boys and girls!]

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official political troubadour of Anaheim and most other OC towns. Regularly makes solo performances, sometimes with his savage-jazz band The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.