BY ANDREW LAM
New American Media
Vietnamese-Americans are asking why only three out of 18 Vietnamese candidates from California won their races for city, state and national offices. Many see only a brief setback for a community rapidly finding its footing in American politics. Eighteen Vietnamese-American candidates ran for office in California this election season, and only three won. All three winners were incumbents. What happened to the growing political clout of the state’s Vietnamese community?
In California, where the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam reside, political participation has long been a nourished dream of Vietnamese. In recent years, Little Saigon in Orange County has successfully ventured into the political realm, electing a handful of Vietnamese city councilmen and a state assemblyman. Their presence has been seen as a sign of the community’s growing maturity.
Many Vietnamese-Americans suspect the stunning defeat this year of so many candidates has much to do with the scandal surrounding Vietnamese-American congressional candidate Tan Nguyen. When 14,000 fliers were mailed from Nguyen’s office to Democratic voters with Spanish surnames in Orange County, telling them if they were immigrants they could face possible imprisonment and deportation if they voted, Nguyen found himself at the center of a political storm.
“Nguyen is a popular last name, and although many of other candidates had nothing to do with Tan Nguyen’s tactics, they share in the blame,” says Thai Tran, a voter in Orange County. “I’m afraid that some Hispanic voters voted to punish the Vietnamese community as a whole.”
Duc Ha, editor of Oneviet.com, says the friendly relationship that Little Saigon worked hard to build with Hispanic communities in California “is now shattered.”
“I’m pretty sure the mailer scandal has some impact on the election of other Vietnamese candidates,” Ha says. Some Hispanic voters quoted by the Los Angeles Times said they were furious about the flier, and that they were motivated in part to go vote because of it.
The 18 Vietnamese ran for positions ranging from school board to city council to mayor.
Tan Nguyen lost to incumbent Loretta Sanchez by 24 points in their race for Congress. John Duong, another Republican, lost by 20 points in his bid for mayor of Irvine.
Re-elected were Van Tran, for state assembly, Lan Quoc Nguyen, for Garden Grove Unified School District, and Andy Quach, for Westminster city council.
Longtime community activist Linh Vu, who called the results terrible for the Vietnamese-American community, notes that, for a Vietnamese-American candidate to win, “the ability to have mainstream voters on your side is a must.” He says many Vietnamese-American candidates still make a common mistake. “Just having a Vietnamese last name without earning yourself a record and reputation as somebody in the community will not give you carte blanche support,” Vu explains. Furthermore, “When many Vietnamese-American candidates are vying for the same position, there will be dilution of the voting bloc.”
Yet Vu notes that in San Jose, where Vietnamese-American voters are a formidable voting bloc, both mayoral candidates — Chuck Reed and Cindy Chavez — courted the community aggressively. “The Vietnamese-American community views the two candidates based on their personality and display of loyalty more than on the issues of which they stand.” Reed, a Vietnam vet who understands the political passion of the Vietnamese community, won. Political power is not simply having a Vietnamese face, but access.
In Orange County, incumbent congresswoman Loretta Sanchez has championed human rights in Vietnam, fighting for the release of political prisoners and earning the trust of Vietnamese-Americans over the years.
De Tran, longtime publisher of the now-defunct Viet Merc, in San Jose, says that he’s not disappointed with the election results. Though a personal friend of his, John Quoc Duong, who was defeated in the Irvine mayoral race, Tran says Vietnamese-Americans are now part of the American political process.
“I don’t think this is a setback. You keep having to have more candidates every electoral season. Maybe the new groups will be better prepared next time around, more savvy with coalition building,” Tran says. “The Vietnamese community sees the Cuban community in Florida as a model, one with growing political and economic influences and lobbying power. Eventually there’ll be many Vietnamese-American candidates out of Florida, Texas and California.”
Maybe someday, Vietnamese-Americans will even be present in Capitol Hill, Tran says.
What about closer to home?
“Not in the next four years,” according to Tran. “We haven’t arrived yet. We are only beginning to discover the electoral process. But beyond that, it’s quite possible that we’ll have a Vietnamese mayor in San Jose. Why not?”
Why not, indeed. Win or lose, the community born of expulsion from Vietnam three decades ago and formed by refugees and boat people has found sure footing on American soil. .