Campaign posters for candidates in the race for mayor line Beach Boulevard… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
Noodle shops and bakeries fragrant with pandan cake and coconut buns draw customers into aging Westminster strip malls. Daily papers compete for refugee readers with headlines screaming out news about Hanoi. Near the Civic Center, a statue of South Vietnamese and American soldiers stands tall.
Yet in a city that gave birth to Little Saigon — the colorful capital of Vietnamese outside Vietnam — there has never been a Vietnamese mayor.
In the decades since the fall of Saigon, voters in this central Orange County immigrant community have elected Vietnamese judges, a county supervisor, an assemblyman, and City Council members and school board trustees by the handful. But the part-time job as Westminster's top elected official has remained out of reach.
Now that may be about to change.
Tri Ta, a magazine editor and the city's current mayor pro tem, could make history next week if he fulfills expectations and emerges as the top vote-getter in the five-candidate race for mayor. His opponents — businessman Al Hamade, city commissioner Penny Loomer, business owner Ha Minh Mach and Tamara Sue Pennington, a traffic technician — lack his political experience and connections.
Ta has been on the City Council for six years and is endorsed by Margie Rice, the city's current and longest serving mayor.
Although the face of Westminster changed long ago, electing a Vietnamese mayor would still mark "one more step in the political acculturation of the Vietnamese," said Jeff Brody, a Cal State Fullerton professor who has researched and written extensively about Little Saigon.
It's taken so long to get to this crossroads, Brody said, because Westminster is a multicultural city, so "a candidate needs to build a coalition of Vietnamese, Latino and white voters."
A candidate can no longer rely on an ethnic surname gaining votes from a specific population, experts say. Immigrant voters have matured and "the diversity in Westminster means a mayoral candidate has to represent the interests of the entire city, not just one voting bloc," Brody said.
Once a largely white, middle-class community, Westminster is now a city without an ethnic majority, although its Asian population — which stands at 44%, according to census figures — is by far the largest ethnic group. More than a third of the city's 91,000 residents are Vietnamese. However, the ethnic enclave of Little Saigon extends far beyond the city limits.
That visibility has led Vietnamese American candidates to come under greater scrutiny, often accused of representing just their fellow immigrants.
Ta, 39, denies taking such an approach. "I think I'm really an honest, fair person. I'm here to serve everyone."
Rice, 83, said when she urged Ta to run in her place, she extracted one promise — that he continue certain city traditions such as observances of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Flag Day, the annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony and the colorful Tet parade during the lunar new year.
"I was looking for someone who understands our history and tradition. He may be quiet, but he can be very strong when he needs to be," she said.
Rice said that of Ta's competitors, the biggest challenger is likely to be Loomer, who was the town's assistant city manager for six years before retiring seven years ago. Ta and Loomer faced each other in the 2006 and 2010 City Council elections, with Ta winning each time.
This time, whoever wins will inherit a struggling city. There have been nearly 70 layoffs and city officials had to withdraw $3 million from its reserve funds to balance the city budget of $48.7 million.
Loomer, a community services commissioner, points to her ease in handling budgets and believes that she is more qualified than Ta to be mayor.
"If you were going to hire someone with experience, I am that person. My career as a public servant has given me skills to understand city operations and functions," said Loomer, who has lived in the city 54 years.
"He may win. I may win," she said. "I don't think you can be a mayor for one group. You have to be a community mayor. I'm a fan of being inclusive. I'm a fan of the Hispanic community and the Vietnamese community."
Ta came to the United States in 1992 and attended Cal State Los Angeles, intending to get into computer science. After turning in his first exam in a political science class, Ta said a professor called him aside and told him, "You have a knack for this." He switched majors.
He is the managing editor of Viet Salon, a magazine covering the nail salon industry, and lives with his family in the Mission del Amo mobile home park. He is the third Vietnamese American candidate to run for mayor in Westminster, the others all going down in defeat.
Ta "should be careful to avoid grandstanding," advises Tony Lam, a sandwich shop owner who was the first Vietnamese American elected to political office in the United States when he became a Westminster councilman.
"In America, you do good for the community at large, not just the community that you are from," said Lam, who was elected in 1992, before retiring from political life a decade later. "It's not only an honor to serve, it's a huge job you must go out and do every day."
Should Ta become mayor, it would be "a continuing coming of age," said Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Brandman University, a division of Chapman University. "He'd be following the others from the Irish to the Jews to the Italians, as they build roots, exercise their presence in this country.
"Democracy," Smoller said, "rewards participation."