Why a group of first-generation Vietnamese immigrants are voting for a Latino instead of a Vietnamese refugee

On a recent evening, a dozen or so Vietnamese American seniors gathered in Hung Nguyen’s Garden Grove living room. The long table they hunched over was filled with plates of bánh tráng mè, a sesame-studded rice cracker, and peanuts — usually the kinds of snacks reserved for drinking sessions.

But these retirees had work to do: They pored over long lists of names, dialing phone numbers and speaking in lilting Vietnamese, trying to convince fellow Orange County voters to support their candidate for Congress: Lou Correa.

It’s not the most obvious choice for these first-generation immigrants, many of whom came to the United States as refugees. Correa, a seasoned Latino politician and former state senator, is running against Bao Nguyen, the 36-year-old mayor of Garden Grove who grew up in and around Little Saigon and who himself was born a refugee in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

But Nguyen isn’t the kind of politician most Vietnamese Americans are used to seeing — or supporting — in Little Saigon. A gay, charismatic progressive who endorsed Bernie Sanders for president earlier this year, Nguyen has taken unpopular positions in the historically conservative Vietnamese community, where nearly all home-grown politicians have been Republicans. (The first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana, was a Republican who lost his seat in 2010 after just one term.) 

When Nguyen and Correa, both Democrats, face off in November for the 46th Congressional District seat now held by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, it will be a test of how far the loyalties of this politically organized ethnic voting bloc can stretch.

“I voted for Bao Nguyen when he ran for mayor, because it was important for us as Vietnamese people,” Nancy Nguyen, a phone banker and Garden Grove resident, said in Vietnamese. “But he has very little experience, and Lou has a long career helping the Vietnamese community…. When I have to make a choice between the two, he’s my choice.”

Correa, for his part, has become something of a household name throughout central Orange County over the years, having served here as a state assemblyman, state senator and county supervisor. The former investment banker is known as an old-school retail campaigner who has built support in both Latino and Vietnamese communities, and he pitches himself as a “common sense” Democrat who can stretch across the partisan divide to serve constituents. Correa, 58 has backing from a vast array of establishment Democrats, including Sanchez and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), as well as the California Democratic Party, business groups and more than half a dozen labor unions.

He likes to bill himself as a “homegrown” candidate who grew up a few blocks from his campaign office — someone who has built a reputation as a moderate serving his district, not party interests, first. 

“This is a blue-collar, hard-working immigrant district, and that’s what my parents were,” Correa said. His campaign style echoes that of Sanchez, who has shown up to community events wearing the traditional áo dài tunic and, like Correa, has been known to hire Vietnamese American staffers. 

Nguyen, a former union organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who also served as a Garden Grove school board member, earned a masters degree in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism from Naropa University in Colorado. He has endorsements from liberal groups including the Sierra Club, Equality California and the California Nurses Assn., as well as the Mexican American Bar Assn. PAC. Nguyen says he’s banking in part on support from millennials and supporters of Sanders, who beat Hillary Clinton by two points among the district’s Democratic voters in June.