Sen. Janet Nguyen, the Garden Grove Republican silenced last week by the Democratic majority and physically removed from the floor of the chamber for trying to criticize Vietnam War activist Tom Hayden, was seated at a hotel bar Saturday in Sacramento when a supporter approached.
Robert Brower, an Orange County resident who served in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, told Nguyen he still had shrapnel in his leg. If he could, he said, “I would dig it out and hand it to Tom Hayden.”
“I just want to congratulate you for the other day,” Brower said.
California Republicans, deeply in the minority at the Capitol and without a statewide standard-bearer, often grumble about the lack of respect afforded to their leaders by the majority party. Nguyen’s silencing provides not only a vivid example of those gripes, but it gave the Republicans huddled at their annual spring convention here a rare issue to coalesce around.
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The action is “definitely a rallying cry,” said Assemblyman Rocky Chávez of Oceanside, who spent nearly three decades in the U.S. Marines.
“It highlights the attitude that whenever a voice comes against what they believe, they shut it down,” Chávez said. “Whenever they speak, and when we try to question that, they say ‘You’re out of order.’ And they paint you in a different light.”
“Every little bump helps,” Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, added about the slight. “It is Exhibit A in the real difference of California and the rest of the nation.”
Before a convention lunch headlined by Rep. Darrell Issa, Republicans played a video of Nguyen talking about her family’s refugee journey from Vietnam. Her father served in the South Vietnamese army, and her uncle was killed there. GOP supporters wore stickers saying “I stand with Janet,” and she delivered the Pledge of Allegiance after getting a standing ovation.
“In the very place that should represent freedom and democracy ... the state Senate ... if we can’t protect and allow my constituency to be heard ... where can that be protected?” Nguyen asked. “We have to stand strong and protect everybody’s First Amendment rights ...
“Because you know what? In the country I came from, that’s not allowed.”
Nguyen was asked to fly in Saturday morning to appear at the convention after Republicans sensed an opportunity to build on the momentum from the story.
The GOP lunch audience was shown video from the Senate floor session where presiding Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, interrupted Nguyen and gave the floor to Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, who said Nguyen was out of order because she did not raise her objections during the Hayden tribute ceremony two days before.
While Nguyen continued to speak, Lara repeatedly asked her to take a seat and then eventually ordered the sergeants to remove her.
“What happened 48 hours ago was as shocking to me as it was for everybody,” Nguyen recalled Saturday. “I was doing my duty to represent my constituency.” After the incident, Lara visited with Nguyen on Thursday and the two hugged.
At the hotel bar, Nguyen welled up talking about the harrowing trip she made to the U.S. She said the discussion about parliamentary procedure – and whether she should have been allowed to call out Hayden, a former Democratic lawmaker, had somewhat overshadowed her intended message.
“I knew my duty. I knew what I had to do for the voters,” he said, adding that holding back was not an option.
“It’s not just personal to me. It’s not just personal to my constituents. They want their stories to be told. They want their stories to be heard.”
Just then, Shawn Steele, a Republican National Committee member from California, stepped in to embrace her.
“This is a glorious lifetime achievement,” Steele told her.
“This is so memorable,” he added. “And so shocking.”