The Brothels and the Ballots of Little Saigon

Andrew Do, Lou Correa, Chris Phan

1. New Bloc on the Block

From rumors to realization, Orange Juice Blog has been covering the details of the Orange County First Supervisorial District election results.  Former State Senator Lou Correa had the benefits of an almost fully united institutional Democratic Party and of a three-way split among candidates appealing to the Vietnamese voting bloc.  It still wasn’t enough to win the Registrar’s final ballot count.  Correa trails Andrew Do by 43 votes (less than a tenth of a percent), but even if he concedes that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s over.

It’s time to take a step back and look at the larger picture.

Little Saigon is now such a dominant regional force in southwestern and west-central Orange County politics that — unless something major changes — I doubt that we’ll see another prominent OC Democrat like Correa or Jose Solorio challenge its power again anytime soon.  Solorio was stomped last November by Janet Nguyen in the largely overlapping 34th District State Senate race; Janet was propelled to victory by a largely unified and energized Vietnamese vote.  If Andrew Do does prevail, the sole Democrat now representing more than a small amount at Little Saigon between the county and non-statewide state or federal legislative level is Rep. Alan Lowenthal, whose district is half in Long Beach and half in OC.  Newly elected State Senator Nguyen has a free shot at Lowenthal in 2016 if she wants it — and why wouldn’t she?  She’s not yet 39; given the strength of her political machine, once elected she might literally serve in Congress for three decades or more.

As a Democrat, I’m concerned about the emerging power of the Vietnamese Republican voting bloc for partisan reasons — but let’s put that aside.  Speaking purely as an American, I’m impressed and gratified by the rise of Vietnamese voters in OC politics.  That this can happen here really is one of the great things about our country; Vietnamese (and Koreans in North and South County, and Persians around Irvine, and many more) are following a trail to political power previously traveled by Irish and Poles and Italians, by Cubans and Mexicans and Dominicans and Jews.  This gives our country a strength in international affairs that other countries cannot match.  Britain, France, Germany, and Italy come closest; China, Russia, India, and Brazil can even barely compete.  Wherever you come from in the world, the U.S. has someone with political that fluently speaks your native language and comes from your culture.  It’s shocking that some people see this as a deficiency in our culture rather than a source of strength and pride.

Yes, as a Democrat, I do wish that Vietnamese voters were Democratic — and I fully expect that more of them will be in the future.  But looking at the history of ethnic ventures into American politics, of which Little Saigon is now a strong example, my main concern is not whether they will be “red or blue.”  My main concern is: will they be dirty or clean?

Right now, a whole lot of people seem to think that they are, and will continue to be, dirty — that Little Saigon will recapitulate this country’s most corrupt electoral histories of immigrant ethnic politics.  Either that’s OK with people outside of Little Saigon — or they don’t think that they can do anything about it.

But we can.  And, even if only because what happens in Little Saigon no longer stays in Little Saigon, we must.

I don’t know whether Little Saigon politics really is as dirty as often alleged (usually in quiet tones.)  I do know that the closeness of the First Supervisor’s race means that we now have the ability to investigate, challenge signs of impropriety, and find out.  And if it doesn’t happen starting in the next few days — possibly even by today — it won’t happen at all.

But it wouldn’t be shocking if the rest of Orange County ignored political corruption in Little Saigon.  After all, we can take a detour for a few hundred words and look what we neighbors do when it comes to their brothels.

2. Mentioning “Brothels” is So Tacky

Blogs are probably more likely than other journalistic outlets to speak the commonly known but unspeakable — such as that Little Saigon has a lot of prostitution and that there seems to be good reason to think that many of the women involved are being held against their will.  One reason that people don’t talk specifics — I’d think that with a little effort one could probably publish addresses — is that that’s the sort of thing that can get you killed.  But if it’s true, the failure of its neighbors to act is our collective shame.

Passively and quietly allowing such horrors is not healthy for a society.  If women are, as alleged, being held against their will, we’re talking here about kidnapping, slavery, and repeated and endless instances of rape.  Our first response to this is, essentially, to shrug.  Our second response is to say that we want to fight human trafficking and slavery — but to redefine it into something safer to oppose, such as when we shift concern about big corporate air, ground, and water pollution into a nice easy campaign against individual litterers.  Somehow, laws sold to the public to rid the state of these large and heinous trafficking organizations become watered down and diverted — so we end up with dumb laws like Proposition 35 that define “human trafficking” not as the blood-boiling, brain-scrambling horrors alleged to occur in Little Saigon, but as (1) teenage sex and (2) regular old prostitution with sex workers voluntarily plying a trade for which there is obviously considerable demand.

This allows everyone to celebrate that they are “fighting the problem” of sexual slavery and trafficking while actually fighting a different problem, one much safer to oppose.  To fight the real problem of women and girls being kidnapped, chained to beds, and raped dozens of times a week, you have sting operations to identify the sites of the activity and you have heavily armed raids against what will presumably being heavily armed criminals.  Police will die in such raids, some of the women themselves will die while being rescued, customers will taken hostage and others will be shot in the crossfire, and criminal elements will retaliate against the broader society for not letting them do their thing.

It would be a huge mess — and politically explosive — but there’s really no shortcut IF you want to solve the real problem.  You can instead claim that you’ll solve the real problem and instead try to solve the fake problems — having police bust 18-year-old boys having sex with 16 year old girls who express consent that would count in Arizona but not in California, arresting women who consciously and intentionally engage in prostitution because it’s one of the few things that society (in fact, even if not in theory) wants poor and less educated women to do.  Reasonable people may disagree on the importance of preventing and punishing these sex crimes, but no reasonable person should confuse these activities with the REAL HORRORS of continual rapes of kidnapping victims.  This is a different and far worse problem than street or call-girl prostitution itself could ever be.

But it’s Little Saigon — so we will apparently let it happen.  And that brings us back to election fraud.

Election fraud, in which the identities of voters are stolen by campaigns and used to manufacture bogus votes for favored candidates, should be considered to be unimaginably horrible — IF it really exists.  Instead, we seem willing to tolerate it.  In the famous and ever-relevant movie Chinatown, the unimaginably evil (not, for the most part, perpetrated by the residents) was tolerated because: “It’s Chinatown.”  If we take the same attitude towards Little Saigon, we are neither helping nor respecting the Vietnamese who live there.  Instead, we’re ensure that only the corrupt ones will have a successful conveyer belt to political success.  IF the stories are true, we are consigning our Vietnamese  to corruption because we outside of their community won’t take the risks of trying to solve it — perhaps, in part, because more of us than we’d like to admit benefit politically from it.

3. Myth or Reality?

I have a confession to make, if “confession” is the right word: I have no direct experience of brothels (or other parts of the sex trade) in Orange County — or, to be honest, elsewhere.  I know sex workers because I’m an advocate for their safety, just treatment, and public health — but everything I know (or think I know) about the reality of sexual trafficking in Garden Grove is derived secondhand.

The same goes for the allegations of voting fraud — not individual “vote fraud,” used to justify repressive voter ID laws — but systemic, repeated, pervasive, and effective conspiracies to churn out votes that do not actually come voluntarily from the voters.  I’ve never seen it.  I’ve just heard it alleged — often — of Little Saigon, and have heard from people who claim to have spoken to people directly involved in it.  If it’s happening, then it is dagger at the heart of our political system and it must be eradicated.  If it’s not happening, then the critics of Little Saigon are just being xenophobic and they should shut up.

I want to be very clear about one thing: either resolution — prosecution or exoneration — is fine with me, so long as it’s the truth.

What should be intolerable is the mis-match: accusations without basis, on the one hand, or corruption without punishment on the other.  We shouldn’t be willing to accept either, in Little Saigon or anywhere else.

We’re in a rare position to find out, right now, what the truth is — or at least what it was in this election.

Normally, the courts would not get involved in this without a prosecution from our feckless OC District Attorney.  But the courts can get involved right now because a legitimate “case or controversy” now exists regarding the outcome of this election.

Correa doesn’t own this cause of action: if (for whatever reason) he doesn’t want to go forward, even if the local Democratic Party can’t summon the will or the resources to do so, any voter who is injured or organization acting on behalf of such a member can pursue a case in court against alleged corruption, because the matter is not “moot.”  The initial evidence to be evaluated is already in the hands of the (eminently trustworthy, in my opinion) OC Registrar of Voters.  The signatures on voting envelopes will match the records — or they won’t match. Where they don’t, the alleged voters will claim them (if they can be identified) — or they won’t.

If serious problems are identified in this election, a local court would probably retain future authority to review processes in Little Saigon — and it would be less likely to happen again.  (It would also be much less likely to happen again and again, as now seems possible.)

Who loses most, if electoral corruption in Little Saigon does exist and is not stopped?  Honest Vietnamese politicians and citizens, that’s who — because they would have no means to advance within the political system without playing along with those doing wrong.

I like and respect Republican Councilmember Chris Phan and Democratic Mayor Bao Nguyen from Little Saigon, as well as other Vietnamese politicians I’ve met such as Phu Nguyen.  I don’t know either of the two officeholders that well, but I believe both to be as honest as any other politician in Orange County.  The system needs to be safe for people like them in both parties or neither party — or they will be swamped and swept away.

It is completely unreasonable, though, to expect the likes of Phan and Nguyen to be the ones to lead such a fight.  The anger within the Vietnamese community at even being suspected of this widely rumored activity (not to mention the community’s desperate fear if it happens to be true) would be too great for a local politician to face.  Sometimes reform has to be initiated from outside.

I don’t think that a Republican can do it, because it could end up hurting the electoral fortunes of the Republican Party –despite that it would greatly help the soul of the Republican Party if they are now succeeding due to corruption.  (As a Democrat, I can tell you that my party was harmed as much as it was helped by the actions of Chicago’s Daley machine, because it tended to elevate people who had the least compunction against cheating into power.  This is a major source of “In Name Only” politicians from both major parties.)

Some in my party have argued that such urban corruption serves the interest”rough justice” — that Chicago’s corruption simply counteracting the pro-Republican corruption in downstate Illinois, most notably in the Presidential Election of 1960.  That’s still not good enough for me.  Others have argued that this sort of manufactured “bloc voting” is the only way that immigrant minority groups can get a fair shake from the larger populace.  That may be true too — but if it was ever true of OC’s Vietnamese community (and pretending for a moment that this is a compelling ethical argument) — it’s no longer necessary now.  Now, IF it exists, it’s just rotten stinking corruption. degrading us all.

4. Who Could Push This Forward?

Before going forward, I’ll need another digression: as regular readers of this blog know, it is my way.

I haven’t written much about the Measure J School Bond controversy — which puts me on the opposite side of many of my libertarian/conservative friends and associates here — because it hasn’t been in the news.  The only public information I could find in 2015 comes from this notice from Fullerton College:

The North Orange County Community College District is pleased to announce that Measure J, our facilities bond measure, was passed with over 55% of the votes. Due to the large number of provisional ballots, it took some time after election day to actually count all of the appropriate votes. The election results were certified by the Orange County Registrar of Voters on November 18, 2014, while the Los Angeles Registrar of Voters certified their results on November 28, 2014. Some recount activity was undertaken in early December, but did not change the initial certification results.

On December 18, 2014 a lawsuit was filed against the District and the Registrars of Voters of Los Angeles County and Orange County alleging that illegal provisional ballots were cast in the November 2014 Measure J election. Rest assured that NOCCCD, along with the Los Angeles and Orange County Registrars of Voters, will vigorously defend the will of the voters during any legal proceedings.

NOCCCD is both proud and humbled that the voters decided to help fund the restoration, renovation and building of facilities for Fullerton College, Cypress College and the School of Continuing Education Anaheim Campus. We will work hard to ensure that support is earned and returned tenfold.

That’s the closest analogue that we have to what could happen in the First Supervisorial District race.  Rather than a recount, a potential plaintiff would come in and inspect the provisional ballots (without touching them, a right limited to employees of the Registrar’s Office.)  Find enough mismatches, and there could be the basis for a lawsuit.

The key to making this fair is that one has to look at all the provisional ballots. not just the ones from one or a few selected ethnicities.  In this race, an inspection of the provisionals alone might even hurt Correa, because it seems that he did comparatively well in the provisional ballots.  Plaintiffs would seek evidence of systemic irregularities (which the Measure J plaintiffs are less likely to find, because there’s no obvious pro-Measure J “machine” with the likely power to initiate massive voter fraud in support of this measure, in sharp contrast to the Janet Machine’s interest in and capability to support Andrew Do through fair means or foul.)  But, any finding of systemic irregularities might lead to a much larger prize: the examination of signatures on absentee ballot envelopes — especially those that arrived on or after Election Day.  I’m told that the law has become much less hospitable in recent years to post-election review of absentee ballots — but I expect that there are circumstances in which it might be appropriate.  (I also expect that there are some attorneys elsewhere in California with a lot more relevant knowledge about the current state of recount laws than I have; if there’s an interested potential plaintiff, I may be talking to one soon.)

Who could that plaintiff be?  The most obvious one is Lou Correa himself, but even if he stands the most to gain he doesn’t seem like one to take such a gamble for, ultimately, perhaps only the greater good.  More likely would be another Democrat from Santa Ana who is looking at expansion of Little Saigon north and east into Democratic territory in Anaheim and Santa Ana — someone like Solorio or someone associated with Tom Daly or Alan Lowenthal or Loretta Sanchez.  But a great amount of support for Correa came from unions, particularly the Orange County Employees Association, who once supported and protected Janet Nguyen and later became disenchanted with her (to put it mildly.)  OCEA, or perhaps a group associated with it, could likely obtain standing.  Public safety unions owe a lot to Correa, and one would think that they should pay up — but they might prefer to mend fence with Do.

You would think that the county’s Democratic Party could take the lead in such an effort, but this seems unlikely.  While they gave great lip service to Correa’s candidacy, they did very little to actually turn out votes — no independent expenditures on member-to-member communications that I’m aware of, for example — far less than did the unions.  A better hope might be the state Democratic Party.  Little Saigon cost them a Senate seat in 2014 and, by drawing money into Solorio’s sinking ship, almost cost them Tony Mendoza‘s 32nd District Senate seat as well and likely made things harder for Sharon Quirk-Silva in AD-65.  If anyone should care about ensuring that Janet’s political machine does not get away with anything dirty, it should be them.

Is it likely that anyone will lead such a charge?  It’s hard to say.  If they were Republicans, and the situation were reversed — if there were rumors of a vast and effective pro-Democratic machine in Santa Ana that was stomping Little Saigon — the answer would surely be “yes.”  But … the people I’ve named are not Republicans.

5. A Personal Note

So far as I can tell, I’m the only county Democrat who has even publicly mentioned going after the question of whether the Janet Machine did or didn’t operate legally in this election.  This is sort of ironic, because the short-term goal would be to get Correa rather than Do into the Supervisor’s chair — and I’m also the only member of the DPOC Central Committee who spoke publicly and then voted against endorsing Correa for this seat.  I think that perhaps I should explain why this isn’t a contradiction.

First of all, I prefer Correa to Do.  I think that Correa poses serious problems, but if he limps into office after this sort of lawsuit those problems will be lessened.  Do poses much more serious problems right now, because he represents the continuation of what most everyone seems to think (at least when speaking off of the record) is a deeply corrupt Little Saigon political machine.  If he was elected and then immediately resigned — only he knows what lobbying offers he’s been getting in the past week (if not before) — the Democrats may even be smart enough not to put anyone up against Chris Phan.

Think about it: while this race has pretty clearly shown that Lou Correa could not beat Andrew Do one-on-one in a special election — Phan’s votes would probably overwhelmingly have gone to Do — what hasn’t been remarked upon is that Chris Phan probably would have beaten Andrew Do one-on-one.  By far most of the votes for Correa would have gone to Phan — the squeaky clean veteran who’s friends with Bao Nguyen — and despite his Republican views on privatization the union would have found him an honorable and intelligent person to lobby, which is not what they are facing now.  If OCEA or some friend of DPOC had just put up a bunch of signs for Phan and for Chuyen Nguyen in areas that were bound to be dominated by Do, Correa wins this race.

The smart thing for Democrats to do would have been for its local Democratic Club in Santa Ana to endorse Correa — allowing him to put a “Democratic” label on the ballot (which would have been a sufficiently broad hint to Democratic voters) — while the county party did not.  This would have allowed people like me to support Phan openly in the Little Saigon area — and the votes that Phan would have gotten would have been taken from Do.  Yes, there was the danger that Phan could take so many votes away from Do that he would win — but that was a risk that Democrats should have been willing to take.  The likelier scenario is that. optimistically, Phan would have taken 1000-2000 votes away from Do — leading to an easy victory for Correa.  Endorsing him and preventing any Democrat in good standing from supporting Phan or Chuyen — when the Democratic Party itself gave at best minimal actual support to Correa — was just about the dumbest thing that the DPOC could have done.  REPUBLICANS PUT UP CANDIDATES WHO WOULD SPLIT THEIR VOTE!  How obtuse do you have to be NOT to take advantage of that?

Why didn’t I say this to the DPOC, you may wonder?  Well, I did say it to some individual members — but the DPOC, in its wisdom, gave me exactly one minute to speak on whether to endorse Correa.  It’s set up now to prevent anyone from speaking to its members at any length without the approval of the Chair.  So it’s sort of hard to discuss anything more complicated than “Blue Good, Red Bad!”, even though we live in a county so politically dense and convoluted that it cries out for a more complex analysis.  I spent my minute reminding people that Correa had betrayed Democratic candidates like Jose Moreno when he has had the chance and that we’d all be better off if he realized that there was a price to pay for doing so.  I got private expressions of agreement afterwards, but no public support.

The local Democratic Party has for a long time usually demanded almost nothing from its electeds (with some exceptions for those who might stray too far to the left.)  I don’t think that it was done them a favor in being such a willing punching bag.  But, what’s done is done — and now we have a potentially dirty and ruinous political machine in an area of the county where we should be doing well.  Now is the time to pull together — not after Janet, potentially aided by a battalion of  “ghost voters” — knocks Lowenthal (or maybe even Loretta) out of Congress.  Time’s a-wasting.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-disabled and semi-retired, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally ran for office against jerks who otherwise would have gonr unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.) His daughter is a professional campaign treasurer. He doesn't usually know whom she and her firm represent. Whether they do so never influences his endorsements or coverage. (He does have his own strong opinions.) But when he does check campaign finance forms, he is often happily surprised to learn that good candidates he respects often DO hire her firm. (Maybe bad ones are scared off by his relationship with her, but they needn't be.)