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Dan Evans' leadership role in resettlement of Vietnam refugees 40 years ago recalled

As Vietnamese refugees huddled by the thousands in processing centers in this country in the days following the fall of South Vietnam 40 years ago this month, then-Gov. Dan Evans made Washington the first state to extend a welcome to an eventual several thousand refugees in what was undoubtedly one of the state's finest hours.

Now the outreach and leadership role Evans played are being celebrated next Monday evening at Kane Hall at the University of Washington with a 40-minute screening of the Academy-Award nominated Last Days in Vietnam.The screening will be followed by a conversation including Evans and Ralph Munro, later the long-term Washington Secretary of State but then an intern in Evans' office who was dispatched to Camp Pendleton, CA, the West Coast processing center for the refugees.

Ralph Munro with Vietnamese refugees at Camp Pendleton 

It was in April of 1975, with the North Vietnamese army closing in on Saigon, that the 5,000 remaining Americans hurried to get out. And because of the 11th-hour bravery of some Americans, 135,000 South Vietnamese managed to escape and many made their way to processing centers in the U.S., including Camp Pendleton.

Munro remembers viewing the sprawling tent-camp for the refugees, meeting with some of them, then meeting with the Camp Pendleton base commander, who asked: "Do you want these people?" Munro says he responded "Yes. I think we do."

 

Munro recalls that Washington's interest in caring for the immigrants came about when Evans heard that California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown made it clear he was not going to permit the Vietnam refugees to be received into his state.

 

So Evans dispatched Munro to California with the admonition, "If you see that S.O.B. (and he didn't abbreviate the profanity, though Evans was never known to swear) Brown, remind him what it says on the face of the Statue of Liberty."

 

Munro recalls his first view at Camp Pendleton of the refugee encampment: "The sun was starting to set and I came over this hill and I just saw thousands of tents."

 

Once he connected with the refugees at their camp, Munro got on a loudspeaker and offered that those who wanted to do so could come to Washington and many quickly stepped forward.

Evans laughs "a lot of them probably thought they were going to Washington, D.C."

While the transit of the refugees was being arranged, Evans' office was contacting churches, community groups and people who might work with a single family. "We found more volunteers than we could handle," he said in a phone interview.

So the first 500 began making their way to Seattle, then 1,500, and on May 8, 1975, Evans personally carried a letter to President Gerald ford formally advising him that the state was agreeing to be involved in the resettlement effort.  

Evans recalls that President Ford soon created the Presidential Commission on Refugees "and we were able to bring the commission the experience we had with the refugees and that helped create the methodology for dealing with the refugees."

He notes that ironically, despite Jerry Brown's desire to keep the Vietnamese refugees out of his state, today California, along with Texas and Washington, are the three states with the largest population of Vietnamese.

So that Monday evening gathering, sponsored by KCTS9 and the Seattle Times, will wind up with a community recognition of Evans and the role he played.

But Dan and Nancy Evans' personal story within the broader story of outreach to the Vietnamese is perhaps even more compelling than the welcome of the eventual 1,500 refugees to a new life and newopportunity in this state.

Evans recalls one family they came in contact with when they went to visit the refugees at Camp Murrray, the state's National Guard headquarters south of Tacoma. It was the Nguyen family, husband, pregnant wife and their five children.

When the sixth child was born, they named him Evans in honor of the governor whose state welcomed them.

"We got to know the family and followed them and saw their focus on education for their children," Evans recalls. "The outcome was the first five were all valedictorians of their high school classes."

"Then as we waited for the invitation to Evans' graduation and none came, we contacted the parents and learned that they were reluctant to invite us because he was not the valedictorian," Evans chucked. "But he was in the top 10 in his class."

Evans recalls that there were two shrines in the Nguyen house. "One was a religious shrine," said Evans. "The other one was in the living room where six UW graduation certificates were displayed."

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Demise of redevelopment agencies looms in the state of big challenges

There's nothing that could make residents of places like Washington, Oregon or Montana feel better about how their states are being run than to be plunked down for a few weeks in California and get an amusing and bemusing look at the dysfunctional workings of the nation's most populous state.

  

Everything about California is big, and that includes the massive budget deficit that has been the focus of governor-again Jerry Brown since he was sworn in a year ago as the literal political-comeback kid.

  

Now comes what may be the biggest challenge ever faced by local governments and economic-development entities in California. More than 400 redevelopment organizations around the Golden State are scheduled to go out of existence on Feb. 1 and some of their financial obligations will be absorbed into the general funds of local governments in those areas where the EDAs now exist.

  

Part of the predicted fallout will be that states like the aforementioned Northwest ones will be cranking up their California recruitment efforts looking to woo businesses away from a place where they don't seem to be wanted.

  

That would be an unfortunate misimpression about California because local communities and economic-development organizations across the state strive mightily to create jobs in their areas with innovative ideas and initiatives, despite the image the state policies have fostered.

  

Four of the largest redevelopment agencies in California are all in the job-hungry Coachella Valley. Those are La Quinta, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert - communities well known to Northwesterners who trek south to the desert each winter in search of sun.

  

Redevelopment agencies provide funding for road, sewer, lighting and affordable-housing projects across the state under a 65-year-old law that allowed a city or county to create a redevelopment area to address urban blight. RDAs receive related property-tax revenue increases, known as tax increments.

  

All this chaos came about because a legislature-approved plan conceived and proposed by Brown sought to coerce the RDAs to give up $1.7 billion in increased property-tax funds if they wanted to continue to exist. It was branded the "pay-ransom-or-die redevelopment system" by the California Redevelopment Association.

  

Part of the reason that the governor and legislature viewed the RDAs as a good place from which to divert revenue is that for all the good works done by the RDAs in creating opportunities for developers to invest in communities and transform downtrodden areas, examples of excess and abuse occurred.

  

To be sure, there have been blatant instances of excess on the part of some RDAs as eminent domain was sometimes used to seize private property that was then transferred to developers along with cash subsidies.

  

But even if sometimes developers seemed to get deals that smacked of favoritism,

many local officials and economic-development leaders would contend that the RDAs usually fulfilled their promise of revitalizing decaying communities and creating jobs.

  

Billions were invested over the decades to dramatically rebuild dilapidated downtowns, creating millions of jobs for Californians and hundreds of thousands of low-income housing units for growing numbers of homeless families.

  

Defenders of the value of redevelopment might logically suggest that killing RDAs is a little like saying examples of Medicare excess or fraud mean that Medicare should be abandoned.

 

During his first stint as California chief executive, Brown's mantra involved a focus on creating lower expectations for his state's citizens. In this new era of spending realities, he's being forced to impose lowered expectations rather than just urge their acceptance.

 

Part of his implementing lower expectations by fiat was to have local development entities settle for less and divert their funds to education, roads and fire departments as he sought to balance priorities while dealing with the $20 billion deficit.

 

The California Supreme Court, in a two-part decision, ruled late last year that the state had the right to kill the agencies. But it didn't have the constitutional right to condition their continued existence on their agreement to pay the state an annual fee based on their portion of property tax revenues.

 

So, unless there's an unlikely 11th-hour reprieve by the legislature, which even the governor's allies say he doesn't seem interested in achieving since it was the RDA organization that took him to court, the RDAs close up next week.

 

So what happens then? The real estate assets of the RDAs need to be sold off. But some obligations of longer-term nature that must be satisfied will become the obligation of city general funds.

 

That's likely to be the start of an extended period of financial uncertainty for cities and counties, as well as for the real estate market that will be flooded with several thousand commercial properties that will need to be sold at fire-sale prices.

 

George Skelton is a Los Angeles Times' political columnist who joined the newspaper the same year Brown was first elected in 1974 and thus has the unusual perspective of having covered both Jerry Browns.  

   

Skelton was a long-ago political-writing colleague at United Press International before he joined The Times so I emailed him last week to ask if we could visit about "the two Jerry Browns."

 

He followed up by writing a column on the subject following Brown's second State of the State address. Skelton recalled Brown's 1976 State of the State as "best remembered for one depressing, if prophetic, line: 'We are entering an era of limits.'

 

The state's current situation is clearly an immersion in an era of limits.

 

The now-73 year old Brown, during his 1974-82 tenure, was tagged as "Governor Moonbeam" for proposing that the state develop its own communications satellite.

 

Skelton says the old "Gov. Moonbeam" still exists. And Brown certainly proved that's true when, despite the financial travails of his state, he made it clear that reduced expectations don't apply to his unwavering support for a $100 billion bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

 

Brown summed it up with: "government should pursue ambitious ventures even during times of economic strife."

 

Local economic-development leaders might well shake their heads in frustration, agreeing with the premise of a state that needs to be "ambitious" in times like these, but not in pursuit of a bullet train.

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