Mike Tharp: Quang Pham is a loss to Congress

March 6, 2010 

The U.S. Congress lost a good man this week.

No, nobody among our 535 electeds died, at least by press time.

And no, nobody among that august group was found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy, at least by press time.

No, Congress lost a good man -- and so did the American people -- when Quang Pham decided to withdraw from the race for the 47th District down in Orange County.

Full and willing disclosure: Quang is a close and longtime friend. We met after the Persian Gulf War, where he was a U.S. Marine helicopter pilot and where I'd been a correspondent on the ground in Saudi, Iraq and Kuwait.

We met during interviews for a book on the war my magazine was writing. Q and I hit it off right away because of war, basketball and Vietnam.

You see, he came here in 1975 as an 11-year-old who spoke about three words of English ("Coke" was one of the clean ones). His dad, a colonel in the South Vietnamese Air Force, put Quang, his mom and sisters on a C-130 just before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

After refugee camps in the Philippines and Arkansas, they wound up in Oxnard. Quang played high school ball there, went to UCLA, got a degree in economics and signed up with a Marine recruiter.

His family didn't know whether his dad was dead or alive back in their motherland. He was alive, barely sometimes, in re-education camps for 12 years.

Quang became the first Vietnamese American to ever pass Marine aviator school. Besides the Gulf War, he also served in Somalia, winding up as a general's aide. He left the Corps as a major.

From our first meeting in 1991, he told me he wanted to write a book. Two years later, I stood on the tarmac with Hoa Pham, Q's father, who had been released from the camps and finally made his way to the U.S. We watched his son land a big chopper at Tustin air station in Southern California.

The father-son reunion made a compelling story: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/930308/archive_014767.htm

Quang and I stayed in touch. We played ball. Watched NCAA tournament games together. He sold pharmaceuticals for awhile, then -- with several million dollars in startup funds he'd gotten from an elite venture capital firm in the Bay Area -- he launched his own company. Lathian Health, a provider of pharmaceutical marketing services and sales solutions.

He ran that as CEO for awhile. But he still felt an urge in his gut to write a book -- especially after he made a trip back to Vietnam in 1995.

It took him 10 more years, but he did it. Random House published "A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey" in 2005. I'd spent a good part of the previous year editing chapters. Sometimes we'd literally meet on a downtown L.A. corner, he'd hand me an envelope with the latest manuscript, I'd had him one with the edited pages and off we went.

(The paperback version comes out soon, and you can find out more about it at www.quangxpham.com.)

I declined his many offers of money for the editing. So he said that if my grad school, Kansas, and his, UCLA, ever made it to the Final Four, we'd go -- on him. As you may know, they did, in 2008, and Q and I were in San Antonio when the Jayhawks cut down the nets.

We stayed close because we believed in each other. He was the trail boss at an important birthday party for me. I emceed the launch of his book tour at the Newport Beach Yacht Club. He got married to Shannon, and they had Willow, a lovely little girl, forced for years to wear UCLA gear.

We talked a year or so ago about Quang running for office. He wanted to run as an Independent, since neither major party fitted his convictions. But he soon realized that unless he were as rich as Ross Perot, he didn't stand a chance outside the parallel mainstream lines.

So he re-registered to Republican from Decline to State and started his campaign last summer. He was going up against Loretta Sanchez, a well-entrenched Democrat now serving her seventh term. Also in the primary was another Vietnamese American, Van Tran, an attorney.

Quang ran for the office the way he trains for marathons -- with relentless and furious discipline. He kissed all the right rings -- and right-wing rings. He raised money and put a lot of his own into the race. He shook hands, kissed babies, made speeches and ate tortillas, pho and burgers with voters.

He learned fast that politics today bears little resemblance to democracy. He learned fast that to run in the party he'd joined, he'd have to either compromise some of his personal beliefs -- such as a woman's right to choose to have an abortion -- or lose support.

He learned fast that his real-world experience -- as a refugee who'd bootstrapped his way to a college education, as a decorated Marine war veteran, as an entrepreneur who created jobs and provided valuable health services -- didn't matter much to the professional political hacks who run both parties.

He learned fast that his new career path could turn slimy overnight. At the California Republic Assembly endorsing convention for the 47th District last month, for example, he lost their endorsement at the 11th hour because his opponent Tran's chief of staff was allowed to cast the deciding vote. Even though the guy lives in Sacramento and was, until recently, a candidate for the state assembly from Northern California.

Then he got some news about his company. A deal was offered that could substantially improve its fortunes and those of his employees, but only if he remained CEO.

We talked several times over the past two weeks. His closest adviser was his wife, Shannon, and he got wise counsel from former Marine generals, fellow CEOs and others who matter to him.

So yesterday, Quang Pham announced he was dropping out of the race. This came just days after he'd been enrolled in the National Republican Congressional Committee's Young Guns Program, a member-driven outfit of House Republicans dedicated to electing open-seat and challenger candidates nationwide.

In other words, some independent-minded Republicans thought Quang had the right stuff.

But the guys in the smoke-filled rooms didn't -- or at least not enough of them did. So Quang left this year's race.

"This does not mark the end of my involvement in the community and politics," he wrote. "I remain committed to supporting educational, entrepreneurial, healthcare, and veteran organizations. And I will support honorable candidates and causes that best represent ideals of fiscal conservatism, limited government, liberty and justice for all."

In a phone call he said he wanted to represent the American people, not party tools.

Several senior Republican leaders praised Quang's candidacy and political future. "Quang Pham is the consummate team player, and his future in Republican politics is bright," Congressman Kevin McCarthy said.

"As a business owner and Marine Corps combat veteran, Quang Pham thoroughly impressed me," Thomas V. McKernan, president of CEO of AAA and chairman of the New Majority, added. "He will go as far in politics if he chooses to do so."

My friend has now witnessed first-hand how the game is played. Neither party monopolizes greed, corruption or cynicism. Both exist to entrench their players into safe seats at the taxpayer trough.

America is no longer a democracy. It's a corporacracy. Businesses, banks, unions and other special interests call the tune, and the White House and Capitol Hill kick up their Guccis and Jimmy Choos and dance.

Quang offered a clean-air alternative. His own life story tells us that he could serve voters with honor, just as he did as a Marine, just as he's doing as a manager who provides jobs for people. His own life story -- refugee to Republican candidate -- comes right from the pages of our history books.

All that, though, wasn't enough. At least for the machine.

So America lost a good man this week -- at least in politics, at least for now. But Quang Pham will still be running -- a company, a marathon -- and building his strength for the future.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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