A sense of arrival rippled along the avenues of Little Saigon on Wednesday as newly elected Republican Assemblyman Van Tran placed a bouquet of pink carnations at the foot of the Vietnam War Memorial in Westminster.
He lighted incense and placed it inside an urn with a statue of an American and a South Vietnamese soldier -- a symbol of lasting friendship between the countries -- rearing up behind him.
"I'm a product of the Vietnam War," said Tran, 40. "I want to look back and appreciate where I've been."
The day after the Garden Grove councilman became the highest-ranking Vietnamese American in elective office in California, Tran strolled through the community where he began his political career two decades ago as an intern for Rep. Robert K. Dornan, a fiery conservative and staunch anticommunist.
Tran's victory -- a lopsided win over his Democratic rival in the 68th Assembly District -- is seen as a milestone and was celebrated by Vietnamese Americans from San Jose to Houston.
"This marks the mainstreaming, or the political arrival, of the Vietnamese community," said political consultant David Ellis of Newport Beach.
But in serving the volatile Vietnamese American community, Tran has stepped into a tricky job.
Strong feelings about communism still grip Little Saigon, as past leaders have discovered. Tony Lam, a Westminster restaurant owner and the first Vietnamese immigrant elected to that town's City Council, became persona non grata when rumors spread that he'd taken a Vietnamese general on a tour of the community. The former premier of South Vietnam, a fierce critic of the communist regime, was derided earlier this year when he returned to his hometown of Hanoi as a tourist.
On Tuesday, when he arrived at the state Republican victory party in Newport Beach, Tran was accompanied by four plainclothes Garden Grove police officers. The escort was provided, Tran said, after he'd received two threatening phone calls.
Tran said he was targeted because of his stance on pro-democracy and human rights issues in Vietnam and now, his ability to speak against communism in a larger forum.
Tran said he wasn't worried. "I can take care of myself," he said.
Garden Grove police said no crime report was taken because there was no specific threat. "We just wanted to make sure he was safe because he felt he was in harm's way," Garden Grove Police Lt. Mike Handfield said of the police escort.
It wasn't the first time Tran had been threatened. Last year, someone ordered an obituary for him in a Vietnamese language newspaper, prompting him to get a gun.
"That's the burden of pubic life, and I'm aware of it," Tran said.
On Wednesday, Tran was the talk of Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam.
"This is a very, very big deal for us," said Jacqueline Phan, 62, of Westminster. "I'm so happy for him and so proud for the Vietnamese people. There's finally a Vietnamese voice to represent us."
Tran's win was featured on the front page of a local Vietnamese-language newspaper, underneath coverage of President Bush's reelection. "This is the first opportunity to have a role in changing the important issues affecting the Vietnamese community in nearly 30 years," a reporter wrote in Viet Bao, one of the largest Vietnamese-language newspapers in the community.
"This is a dream come true," said Ky Ngo, a longtime community activist who has known Tran for 20 years. "He is the ultimate symbol of anticommunism."
Tran attracted attention from Vietnamese-language media from San Jose to Houston to Virginia. The largest concentrations of Vietnamese emigres outside California live in Texas, Seattle and Arlington, Va. -- all places Tran held fundraisers on his way to collecting about $800,000 for his campaign.
Hung Duy Hoang, 42, an attorney and activist in Houston, said the Vietnamese American community there was celebrating, even though Tran offered them no direct political might.
"He is a freedom fighter, and that is why we support him," Hoang said. "We fled the country and settled in various places, but we are connected because we all have a belief that we are all fighting for Vietnam."
Supporters said Tran is their hope to promote a communist-free Vietnam through government channels, not just through the boisterous protests that have symbolized the community's activism. The mere display of a Vietnamese flag in a video store in 1999 prompted a 53-day demonstration that drew a squad of riot police.
Tran served as a liaison between the police and protesters during the demonstrations. Afterward, he launched a voter registration drive.
A year later, Tran, an attorney whose family fled Saigon as it fell in 1975, won election to the Garden Grove City Council. Only six Vietnamese Americans currently serve on city councils and school boards, including four in California. Nationwide, about 160 Asian Americans serve in state legislatures, with seven in Congress, according to the National Asian Pacific American Political Almanac.
Tran's high profile in the community as a staunch anticommunist will probably be enhanced in the Assembly as he votes on more mainstream issues that affect a larger group of voters, Ellis said.
"I think that's a generational issue that becomes less important," he said. "First immigrants are very passionate, just like Miami's Cuban exiles who fled Castro in 1959. But Van Tran is more than one issue. He's paid his dues with the party and he's a real star for the party. He's America."
The real evidence of Tran's success may be a keepsake from the Republican National Convention in New York -- a calendar designed to highlight the party's commitment to civil rights and diversity. Secretary of State Colin Powell is pictured. So is Abraham Lincoln, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Tran.