The Real OC: Diverse, Dynamic and — Dare I Say — Progressive


I recently returned to Orange County after a decade’s absence, fully aware that a stereotype of all-white, card-carrying-John Birchers still exists among many who remain unfamiliar with facts on the ground here.

I never bought that old saw in the first place.

And now, on a second venture into OC, I’m amazed by how deeply those old stereotypes have been buried under the accumulated accomplishments of everyday folks.

The truth is that OC can rightfully claim ground as a leader when it comes to all sorts of popular buzzwords that are falsely applied to a lot of so-called cosmopolitan places.

Start with “diversity,” a sop for all seasons in Los Angeles and other urban centers, where ethnic communities often are treated like so many pawns.

Then there’s “dynamic,” another adjective that many metropolitan areas seem to think is theirs simply for the taking.

Dare I add the presumptuous “progressive” to the list of over-used and seldom-earned buzzwords?

I shall.

In many ways OC, with its suburban reputation and libertarian leanings, comes closer to living up to the actual meaning of those words compared to many of the so-called cosmopolitan centers that cling to old stereotypes about this place.

How do I figure?

Take the campaign between Democratic incumbent Loretta Sanchez and Republican challenger Van Tran for the 47th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, an area that includes much of Central County.

Tran has made Sanchez work hard in her re-election bid, no small feat considering her long incumbency.

Neither candidate can count on ethnic appeal alone to propel them to the top. Latinos account for about 68% of the population in the district, which helps Sanchez. But voter registration is a different matter. Asians make up a smaller-but-still-significant base for Tran, with about 15% of the district—slightly more than whites. The winner will have to pick up a good chunk of voters outside their respective ethnic bases.

That makes for a competitive race in a general election.

And that’s a rarity in too many metropolitan areas.

Consider Los Angeles, where ethnic communities too readily are factored like so many widgets into the calculus of ethnic politics. Electoral districts are carved up to turn this or that ethnic community into a lock for one political party or another.

Candidates in these tailored districts typically get in line with power brokers before launching campaigns. There are occasional primary contests. But the differences between candidates in those intraparty affairs are usually so small that any debate is dominated by minute matters rather than any real difference in philosophies or policies.

That’s stagnation.

Some so-called cosmopolitan types might look at OC and say that the Sanchez-Tran race is an anomaly because of the challenger’s heritage. The local Vietnamese community ended up in OC after its founders fled a communist government, making it a natural for conservative, Republican politics here. That makes the community an outlier in terms of politics, ethnic or otherwise.

That might hold up if it weren’t for Phu Nguyen, the Democratic nominee for the 68th District seat in the California Assembly, a territory that stretches from Anaheim to Newport Beach.

Nguyen and Tran—Democrat and Republican— together belie any notion that the Vietnamese community is an outlier because of over-riding Republican loyalties in the local Vietnamese community.

Nguyen’s opponent for the Assembly seat, Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, points in the same direction as he engages in their high-spirited debate.

Mansoor is a Republican who springs from Arabic and Finnish stock. The district that he and Nguyen vie to represent takes in parts of Little Saigon and Little Arabia, but does not feature a majority of voters of Vietnamese or Arabic heritage. There’s no big Finnish contingent, either.

So you have a couple of candidates who can be readily identified by their ethnicities locked in an electoral battle that goes well beyond ethnic politics. They must reach beyond ethnic politics because the district in the heart of OC is too diverse for such narrow appeals.

I don’t see any saints in the local political lineup. I’m willing to bet that both parties have tried to slice and dice the map to come up with districts that would make cynical use of ethnic communities.

The point here is that OC attracts the sort of residents who reach beyond the familiar, pushing out here and bumping into one another there. Sure, Little Saigon is the major center of Vietnamese-American life, Santa Ana has an undeniably Latino core, and there is a Little Arabia in Anaheim. Yet those centers function more as cultural touchstones and less as assigned areas for members of those respective ethnic communities.

The truth is that OC’s population mix is pretty well spread geographically and socioeconomically, with plenty of ambition—political and otherwise—throughout.

That’s a different sort of diversity compared to what we hear so much about in a lot of so-called cosmopolitan centers.

Sounds pretty dynamic.

You might even call it progressive.

Sullivan is managing editor of the Orange County Business Journal (

Photo by vansassa