The Vietnam War ended nearly a half century ago, but the bitter political divisions it spawned are reverberating once again this week in one of the most hotly contested congressional districts in the country.
Military veterans who support Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) on Tuesday demanded that a Democratic group aimed at defeating him return a $100,000 donation it recently received from Jane Fonda, who turned 80 in December.
Around 15 veterans outside Issa's office holding flags and sporting their combat ribbons recalled Fonda's controversial 1972 photo shoot in North Vietnam, where she was photographed sitting behind an enemy anti-aircraft gun. The stunt earned the actress the nickname "Hanoi Jane."
"Democrats, Democrats, you should be ashamed, taking Commie money from Hanoi Jane," the vets and Issa supporters shouted at a group of Democratic protestors gathered across the street.
The protesters, carrying signs with slogans such as, "Adios Issa," "Disarm Hate," and "Stop Trump, Defeat Issa," chanted back, "Do Your Job" and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Darrell Issa has got to go."
Outnumbered roughly three to one and shouted down throughout their rally, the veterans used a megaphone to amplify their message and played patriotic songs, including Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American."
At one point during the rally, Issa emerged from his office to cross the street and thank his veteran supporters while declining to address the Democratic protesters.
"I know that this is a lot smaller group, but we’re not taking in soft money, and I’m happy for that," Issa said, referring to the Fonda donation and other unlimited sums donated to the Flip the 49th group and others aimed at defeating him.
Issa, who served in the Army from 1970 to 1972, blasted Fonda's attempts to oust him from his seat and referred to her repeatedly as a "traitor."
"Hanoi Jane is a traitor—she was a traitor during the Vietnam War and you cannot undo being a traitor," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "She broadcast live from Hanoi talking about war atrocities. She would have you believe it was just one bad photograph, but I entered the army in 1970 and we consider her a traitor and that's not going to change."
"Anyone who thinks she's not a traitor can vote for the Democrats," he added.
Issa's district—which is home to Camp Pendleton and more than 200,000 Marines, as well as many retired veterans—the mere mention of Fonda’s name triggers strong emotions, Issa’s veteran supporters said.
Chuck Rabel, a retired Naval officer who served as a Swift Boat skipper in Vietnam and lives in Issa’s district, said he will never forgive Fonda for her trip to Vietnam.
"The proudest thing I’ve ever done—I took five men and me to Vietnam and we got hit 42 times, a few times big time, and I got everybody home, that’s what counts. And we had no help from Hanoi Jane. Unbelievable."
Fonda has stood by her anti-war activism but has repeatedly apologized for the iconic photograph, saying she deeply regrets it and believes the North Vietnamese tricked her into sitting on the anti-aircraft gun.
Many veterans say they can’t forgive her, despite her labors as a workout icon and the wife of Ted Turner.
"Jane Fonda’s money should go back where it came from—we don’t need it here in Vista," said Cliff Kaiser, a 31-year veteran of the Navy submarine services who lives in the district.
"We stand for Darrell Issa and the president of the United States," said Patti Siegmann, a retired Marine. "We do not stand for treason against this country. We only know Jane Fonda as Hanoi Jane who went to Vietnam and sold out America to the North Vietnamese."
After narrowly eking out a win in 2016, Issa is considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress this year. His attempt to hang onto the seat, which spans north San Diego and Southern Orange counties, is attracting national attention, organizers and money. Once solidly Republican territory, the district has been trending purple in recent years with a majority voting for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.
Flip the 49th Neighbors in Action, the group that took the Fonda donation, has close ties to national unions. The Service Employees Union local gave $25,000 of in-kind donations to the group, and one of its founders is David Lagstein, SEIU’s political director.
For months, the group declined to disclose its donors, only doing so in mid-December when it told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Fonda had contributed $100,000 of the group’s total $440,000. Other Hollywood heavyweights also donated, including: Leonardo DiCaprio, comedian Bill Maher, actor Ted Danson, and comedian Jay Leno, through his JDM Foundation.
The group did not respond to a Washington Free Beacon question about whether it would return the Fonda donation.
In a fundraising plea of his own in December, Issa cited the Fonda donation and asked his supporters to "chip in $5" to "help fight back this traitor and stand with our veterans!"
"My opponents are bought and paid for by ‘Hanoi Jane; Fonda, a woman who said our POWs returning from Vietnam were ‘hypocrites and liars' who shouldn’t be ‘hailed as heroes,'" he said.
Even though Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel and Democrat, nearly defeated Issa in the 2016 contest, national Democrats, including Rep. Adam Schiff, D., Calif., have thrown their support behind Mike Levin, an environmentalist lawyer who is running against Applegate for the chance to defeat Issa.
A large contingent of the Democratic protesters who showed up at Issa's office Tuesday were sporting pro-Levin t-shirts.
One Democratic protester, Mike Lewis, sported an Applegate t-shirt at the protest Tuesday, said it's upset that national Democrats have abandoned Applegate in favor of Levin.
"I don’t understand it – Schiff jumped on the wrong bandwagon right off the get go, and I thought it was shocking, and it’s still shocking," he told the Free Beacon. "I’m offended that some members of the local Democratic party would jump ship when Applegate is such a wonderful candidate."