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Sunday, August 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cantwell challenger adds quixotic flavor to campaign

Seattle Times staff reporter

Before attorney Hong Tran decided to challenge Sen. Maria Cantwell for the Democratic nomination — blasting Cantwell's vote to authorize force in Iraq at every turn — she considered running against Rep. Jim McDermott, a longtime Seattle liberal with strong anti-war views.

McDermott wasn't an effective congressman, Tran reasoned, and he doesn't do enough to help poor people.

Tran doesn't see the paradox of courting Iraq war critics in her contest against Cantwell while also criticizing McDermott's record. Both politicians talk more than they act, she said, and both have been disappointments.

Confidence, Tran doesn't lack. It's money and support that seem a little thin.

To say she is running a quixotic campaign would be an understatement. Tran, who quit her job as legal-aid attorney to run, has no political history, practically no donors and scant community connections.

Given the number of anti-Bush bumper stickers and yard signs around town, Tran's denunciation of the Iraq invasion would seem to invite some degree of support. By most standards, it has not.

Although she received attention when Cantwell's other primary opponent, Mark Wilson, bowed out and received a well-paid campaign job with Cantwell, Tran's run may say less about the state's political climate than her own determination to remain on the ballot.

Taking aim at Cantwell

To hear Tran tell it, her experiences working with the disadvantaged got her into politics.

Ten years ago, Tran, 40, joined the Northwest Justice Project, a statewide not-for-profit that provides free civil legal services to low-income people. She often worked with clients who were denied affordable housing or faced eviction.

Cantwell earned Tran's ire when she made an announcement about trying to save roadless areas in forests a couple of years ago while saying nothing as the federal government cut the budget for subsidized housing.

"That didn't speak well of her advocacy for working families," Tran said.

The Iraq war is her No. 1 issue because the conflict sucks money and attention from other domestic priorities, she said. The invasion was completely unjustifiable, she said, and Cantwell's support of it made her complicit in an international crime.

Although she credits Cantwell with some environmental victories, such as defeating a measure that would have allowed oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, Tran said Cantwell hasn't done enough for other vulnerable areas of Alaska.

"The fact that she hasn't been a complete failure doesn't make her a great environmentalist," Tran said.

But politics isn't as easy as it looks, as Tran quickly discovered.

She concedes that she has not been active with other Southeast Asian immigrants, so her name is not well known even with those who might be considered a natural constituency.

"She does not have a reputation in the community," said Hai Tran, vice president of the Washington chapter of the Vietnamese Professional Society and no relation to the candidate. "I don't think she has any chance."

And then there's the campaign cash, which has proved elusive. From April to June, Tran raised only $18,000, leaving about $8,000 after expenses. According to the Federal Election Commission, a total of 20 people wrote checks of more than $200 to the campaign, including Tran herself, who gave $250.

John Fox, a low-income-housing advocate who has worked with Tran in the past, endorsed her but has not given her money, though he said he plans to hold a fundraiser soon.

In conversations before Tran announced her candidacy in May, Fox told her to run for City Council. She wanted Congress.

"She has an uphill battle, but, win or lose, it's important to show Cantwell that her support of the war is unacceptable," Fox said.

The lukewarm reaction to Tran may be due to liberals salivating at the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the House or Senate, Fox said, making it difficult for newcomers to catch fire with the activist base.

"They don't want to jeopardize the possibility of a Democratic majority in the fall," he said.

Tran insists she is not a vanity or protest candidate, and she's in it to win. She has traveled to Democratic meetings across the state, and, on Sunday mornings, can be found at Cafe Wannabee in the University District, talking politics to anyone who shows up.

"I am committed to running a strong campaign," she said. "I've spent all my life doing the principled thing."

Parents are Republicans

Tran was 8 years old when her family escaped South Vietnam as Saigon fell. Tran and the others were rescued from a barge by the Navy and sent to a refugee camp in the Philippines.

Eventually, her family settled in Florida. While studying law in Utah, Tran volunteered to work with low-income clients. That led to a similar job in Spokane, and finally Seattle.

Her parents are staunch Republicans, part of a generation of immigrants who view the Vietnam War as a noble effort to protect an independent government from communist invasion.

Tran, too, said the war in Vietnam was unlike the situation in Iraq.

"The difference is the South Vietnamese people wanted the Americans there to vend off the Viet Cong. You had an established government that wanted the U.S. help, and the people didn't want them to leave," she said.

"That's very different from Iraq. We weren't asked to come. There was no justifiable reason for intervention in Iraq. The Iraqi people want us out now, and we should honor that."

The Iraq war provides most of the grist for Tran's campaign.

On July 31, as Cantwell supporters gathered at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center to hear former President Clinton, a handful of protesters gathered on the sidewalk. One man wearing a Hong Tran T-shirt held a sign that read: "Don't worry, be Bushie."

Still, it's a wonder Tran doesn't get discouraged.

On a recent hot evening, the King County Young Democrats gathered in a second-floor room at University Heights Center to listen to a debate of contested primary races.

Cantwell sent a surrogate to the low-key event, but there was Tran, standing in the back, waiting her turn to speak.

The few dozen people in the audience gave her polite applause after she finished, declaring that Cantwell had "failed the Democratic voters in this state."

Cantwell ended up getting 32 votes to Tran's nine in the straw poll, just another signal that this may not be Tran's year.

If Tran loses next month's primary, she said she will vote for Cantwell in November. And, if asked, she probably would appear with Cantwell at campaign events if it didn't conflict with her job search.

In fact, the only good thing Tran has to say about Cantwell comes in a comparison to her likely Republican challenger, Mike McGavick.

"As much as I disagree with Maria Cantwell, I do think she is a better fit for Washington state."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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