Sen. Janet Nguyen (R) was the star of last weekend’s California GOP convention because she was forcibly removed from the floor of the Senate on Feb. 23 for criticizing the late Sen. Tom Hayden (D), who was honored by his former colleagues two days before.
The Los Angeles Times reported people at the Republican gathering wore “I Stand with Janet” stickers. A video was played during the convention that told the story of Nguyen and her family’s escape from Vietnam.
She received a standing ovation when she led the Pledge of Allegiance at the convention.
Nguyen said she was speaking for her family and thousands of other Vietnamese refugees who had fled the communist regime that took over South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
“I refused to be silenced or have my #FreedomofSpeech infringed when speaking out for those who are victims of tyrannical regimes!” Nguyen tweeted shortly after she was hauled out of the Senate.
“Extremely grateful for the support for my #1stAmendment right to speak for the memory of those who fled persecution after the Vietnam War,” she added in another tweet that day.
It has been four decades since Tom Hayden protested America’s role in the Vietnam War. Nguyen wrote in an Orange County Register column that she wanted to provide the Legislature with a different perspective of Hayden’s “support for the communist North Vietnamese government.”
It’s an issue that is very personal to Nguyen.
She and her family were among those who fled the persecution of the communist regime from Hanoi.
Nguyen was born in Saigon on May 1, 1976, about a year after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Her father and uncle had served in the South Vietnamese Army.
After the war, “my uncle was executed by the communists and my father was sought for a ‘re-education camp,’” Nguyen wrote in the op-ed column, which was published two days after her removal from the Senate floor.
As a result, her family, along with millions of other refugees, became so-called “boat people” to escape the communist regime from North Vietnam. Nguyen and her family survived crossing the South Asia Sea on a 10-meter boat and eventually arrived in California in 1981.
“It was in the interest of representing the residents of the 34th district, home to the largest community of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, that I felt compelled to tell my colleagues what Sen. Hayden’s support of the communist regime meant to the Vietnamese-American community,” Nguyen wrote in her op-ed.
Mike Madrid, a GOP strategist, told the Los Angeles Times that the decision to walk Nguyen off the Senate floor was a huge tactical blunder. He said the GOP can use what the Democrats did to Nguyen to change the narrative about the Republican Party’s stand on immigration, refugees, and women.
“It’s an extremely strong, galvanizing moment for the party, and obviously she’s the focal point. It’s big for both of them,” said Madrid. “It’s also an opportunity to reframe what’s happening in the party — this is an immigrant, this is a refugee, this is a woman of color who was clearly put down here.”
California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte took immediate advantage of the political opening the same day Nguyen was led off the Senate floor.
“As a former member and leader in the California State Senate I’m disgusted by the silencing of Senator Janet Nguyen on the Senate floor today,” Brulte said in a statement. “Janet’s personal story about fleeing persecution parallels the stories of many in her community and she stood on the floor to give voice to not just her district, but also the tens of thousands who have fled oppression. The Democratic leadership should be ashamed of their actions.”
Democrats were quick to refresh Republican memories about Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) being shut down on the floor of the U.S. Senate when she criticized Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is now the nation’s attorney general.
But Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio admitted he had to agree with Brulte. It was a damaging unforced error.
“It was a boneheaded move,” Maviglio told the Los Angeles Times. “Republicans are doing a good job trying to make her a martyr. If I were them, I would be doing the same thing.”
It was the Senate’s presiding officer of the day, Sen. Ricardo Lara (D), who instructed the sergeants at arms to escort Nguyen from the floor. He later apologized. And Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D) promised an investigation.
But that was not good enough for Sen. Nguyen.
“I am deeply disappointed with the majority party leadership’s actions because they didn’t just silence my voice, they silenced the voices of the more than 930,000 residents I represent,” Nguyen wrote. “In Vietnam to this day, free speech does not exist and on Thursday, I caught a glimpse of what that must be like.”