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Making a Name in San Jose Politics

Nguyen (Madison) beats Nguyen (Linda) to become 1st Vietnamese American on council.

September 19, 2005|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — This city had never seen a victory party like it.

Hundreds of Vietnamese Americans packed a rented cafe to watch election returns, munching pizza and sipping red wine. By 10 p.m. Tuesday it was clear: Madison Nguyen -- a 30-year-old Democrat with a master's in social science -- would become the first Vietnamese American to serve on San Jose's City Council.

There were broad grins from first-generation immigrants, many of whom arrived nearly three decades ago to eke out a living on the fringes of the Bay Area economy. Some supporters wept. And dozens of young people who had walked precincts to help Nguyen rout her opponent with a 24% lead let out boisterous screams.

"We haven't had representation -- ever," said 22-year-old Vien Nguyen, a finance student at San Jose State University who says he is now inspired to run for office one day. "There's a lot of pride. I came here to celebrate."

Whichever way the race had gone, San Jose's nearly 100,000-strong Vietnamese community -- close to 10% of the city's population and outnumbered in California only by Orange County's Little Saigon -- would have gotten its first Vietnamese American elected city leader: Facing Madison Nguyen in the runoff to fill an empty council seat was 28-year-old real estate lawyer Linda Nguyen. The pair beat out seven non-Vietnamese American contenders in a June primary.

And with that, the runoff to represent a crime-troubled, potholed South San Jose district turned into something larger.

Vietnamese American activists hope that when Madison is sworn in Tuesday it will signal an era of greater attention and resources for the community. The wish list is long: better senior services, affordable housing, job creation and small-business assistance for the city's estimated 5,000 Vietnamese American entrepreneurs.

"Vietnamese businesses work very hard to get any kind of funding from the city of San Jose because they don't get any attention in City Hall," said H.G. Nguyen, founding president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce of Santa Clara Valley.

"We are hopeful that with a new Vietnamese city councilwoman, those services will be available to us."

The victory also marks the type of political coming of age that many immigrant groups achieve when American-raised generations take root.

For years, San Jose's activists have gathered in rented halls to hold fundraisers for Vietnamese American politicians from Southern California and Texas, said Dat Nguyen, 53, executive director of the Vietnamese American Council. They raised tens of thousands of dollars last year to help Garden Grove City Councilman Van Tran win an Assembly seat.

But even though San Jose has the largest Vietnamese American population of any U.S. city, community leaders were never convinced they had the financial and political legs to make inroads of their own.

"We have been waiting so long," said a jubilant Dr. Ngai Nguyen, a community leader here who became Madison Nguyen's chief advisor and helped court support from initially mistrustful elders. "She doesn't represent just the district, but Vietnamese in the whole city who will be turning to her for help." (None of the six Nguyens is related.)

While Westminster and Garden Grove have seen a slow ascendance of more conservative politicians -- last fall, the Republican Tran became the state's first Vietnamese American legislator -- political maturation here has a different flavor.

Both Nguyen candidates are young, both are women and both are Democrats -- but they did battle to outdo each other with anti-communist rhetoric when wooing Vietnamese American voters.

"These two women grew up here and went to school here. They are our first wave" of political leaders, said Phillip Huynh, 41, a Santa Clara social worker who volunteered for Linda Nguyen's campaign -- largely because he found her anti-communist stance more hard-line than Madison Nguyen's.

Madison Nguyen came to the U.S. at age 4 and grew up in Modesto, working the fields next to her parents in a largely Latino community. As a college student she marched with farmworkers in labor disputes in Watsonville and Salinas. After earning her master's from the University of Chicago, she made her way back to California, eventually working with a San Jose community nonprofit for youths.

A 2002 "Rock the Vote" concert that she organized yielded 5,000 Vietnamese American registrations and propelled her to run for a seat on the Franklin-McKinley school board. Nearly a third of the district's students are Vietnamese American. But parents were often lost when it came to influencing policy.

Walking door to door, Nguyen recalled, "I had to lead them from Step 1 through 10."

When San Jose police shot and killed a Vietnamese woman in 2003 -- mistaking her Asian vegetable peeler for a weapon -- Madison Nguyen demanded cross-cultural training of law enforcement.

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