Sanchez, Tran Race Marked By Ethnic Friction

Democrat Loretta Sanchez has trounced her GOP challengers since winning the House seat 14 years ago. But this year she has a formidable challenger, Van Tran has solid backing from the large Vietnamese community in the Southern California district. A racially-charged comment from Sanchez has her on the defensive.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now we're going to look at one House race in particular. It's here in Southern California in Orange County, where a long-serving Democratic congresswoman recently got into hot water for making a racially charged comment. Loretta Sanchez told a TV interviewer that her Republican opponent, who was born in Vietnam, is anti-Latino. She also suggested that the Vietnamese community was trying to take away her congressional seat. NPR's Carrie Kahn has our report.

CARRIE KAHN: Orange County's mostly Republican Vietnamese community has been raking up some impressive victories recently - from big wins on the local board of supervisors to a coveted spot in the California legislature. But the biggest prize would be unseating seven-term incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. That's why the national GOP has been pouring into the 47th district.

Unidentified Man: We're going to bring the former mayor of New York, the Honorable Rudy Giuliani.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Mayor, New York City): Thank you, Van. Thank you very much.

KAHN: This week, Giuliani stumped for Republican candidate Van Tran at a shopping center in the heart of Little Saigon. The former New York mayor strolled the mall, bought a Buddha basket filled with Vietnamese candy, and praised Van Tran as a true fiscal conservative willing to fight for a balanced budget and tax cut.

Mr. GIULIANI: When we need really good strong people to come forward and help save our country from a philosophy and a direction that is so damaging, I'm really very happy that Van has done this. And I really admire him for his campaign.

KAHN: Unlike Sanchez and the Obama administration, which Giuliani said was engaged in class and racial warfare. That was a reference to Sanchez's comments on Spanish-language television.

Representative LORETTA SANCHEZ (Democrat, California): (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: She accused Tran of being anti-Latino and warned the Hispanic audience that the Vietnamese were trying to take away her seat.

Ms. SANCHEZ: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: She says the Vietnamese and the Republicans are working with intensity to take this position, which has done so much for our community.

It was a blunder that put the congresswoman on the defensive in a district she's long dominated. Sanchez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, has since apologized for the comment and the uproar has subsided a bit, but the flap exposed how the district has a cultural, as well as a political, divide.

At a televised debate this week, Sanchez preferred to focus on her voting record.

Ms. SANCHEZ: I'm proud that we enacted the first comprehensive health care reform in history. I'm proud that we did far-reaching Wall Street reform. I am proud of the work that we have done. That is how we restore faith in our government.

KAHN: Van Tran doesn't miss an opportunity to brand Sanchez as an entrenched incumbent, out of touch, especially with conservative Democrats. During the debate, Tran repeatedly borrowed a line from Ronald Reagan's playbook.

Mr. VAN TRAN (Republican Congressional Candidate, California): There you go again, Loretta. A lot of rhetoric, a lot of press releases, but no proof in the pudding.

KAHN: Pollsters say the race is too close to call. Democrats have sent out Bill Clinton today to get out the vote. Sarah Palin is here tomorrow for the GOP.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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