Vietnamese-Americans Make Debut on Ballot


Three members of Orange County's burgeoning Vietnamese community--the largest outside their homeland--will make history in November when their names appear on American ballots.

Tony Lam, 56, and Jimmy Tong Nguyen, 45, are among six candidates seeking a seat on the Westminster City Council next month. That race, along with Vietnamese-American Henry Le's bid for a seat on the Santa Ana City Council, has motivated the Vietnamese community to become more involved in the local political process, leaders say.

"The whole community is involved," said Kim Nguyen, a member of the Vietnamese Students Assn. of Southern California. "Everywhere people are talking about it, everyone is excited. For the first time people feel they can eventually help the community, and it has inspired younger people to think about going into politics, too."

Some estimate that the the Orange County Vietnamese community, born of mass immigration that began at the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s, has grown to 100,000, although 1990 census figures place the population at closer to 72,000. At any rate, it is the largest Asian ethnic group in Orange County, having grown 271% since 1980, census figures show.

Both Lam, a Westminster resident for 15 years, and Nguyen, a resident for two years, have launched full-fledged campaigns, going door-to-door, shaking hands, running phone banks, mailing flyers, posting signs and encouraging people to register to vote. Lam's organizers claim to have registered about 2,000 new Vietnamese voters.

Lam's six children, who range in age from 19 to 30, have posted "Vote for Tony Lam" signs around the Westminster community known as Little Saigon.

Nguyen has walked precincts with his 11-year-old daughter and his wife, while campaign workers wrapped 10,000 little American flags inside political mailers. Volunteers for the candidate who distribute leaflets with him on Saturdays wear white T-shirts with red, white and blue banners across their chests.

More than 20% of the 78,000 residents of Westminster are of Vietnamese descent. Local organizations, which estimate that only about 3% of them were registered to vote in June, say that number at least has doubled with the introduction of the Vietnamese candidates.

They are the first Vietnamese to seek public office in Orange County, and perhaps the nation, community leaders say.

But the prospect of a Vietnamese-American in government, a cause for celebration in Little Saigon, has been dimmed somewhat by the fact that the men are running against each other, possibly increasing their chances of defeat.

"It's unfortunate that both are running for the same seat, the Vietnamese will be split because of this," said Chuyen Nguyen, former general secretary of the Vietnamese of Southern California Council. "It's tough, because it's the first time Vietnamese-Americans are going out and trying to participate in the system. But no Vietnamese organization will endorse either one--it's an awkward situation."

Dr. Co Pham, chairman of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, agrees. "I don't know why the two are running against each other," he said. "They are both good candidates, and they know what's going on, but both running could hurt both of them."

Henry Le, running for the Santa Ana City Council, recently moved to that city from Westminster specifically to avoid running against other Vietnamese, he said.

If any of the candidates win, it will mark the first time any Vietnamese-American has held an elected office in the United States, according to a spokesman for Asian Pacific American Municipal Officials, a constituency group of the National League of Cities.

Nguyen and Lam both came to the United States in 1975, along with thousands of other political refugees from Southeast Asia.

In Vietnam, Lam worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and later became an industrialist and owner of construction and processing plants. In the United States, he began his new life as an insurance agent, and later became co-owner and operator of three restaurants in Little Saigon. He is on the Board of Trustees of Humana Hospital, and is a former board member of the Orange County Community Council and president of the Orange County Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce. He has three sons, three daughters and two grandchildren.

"I am still thankful that I am safe and sound here," Lam said. "I am thankful that my children can go through the educational system here and earn a good living. This is the only country that gave us the opportunity to rebuild life after we lost practically everything."

Lam, who like Nguyen and Le is a Republican, has been endorsed by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who is also honorary chairman of his campaign; the Westminster Police Officers' Assn.; Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), and Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove).

Nguyen was in the South Vietnamese military in Vietnam before he escaped, leaving his parents and relatives behind and settling in New Orleans. In 1980 graduated from the city's police academy. He became a sheriff's deputy, assigned to the Vietnamese community there.

Nguyen moved to Orange County in 1990, where he acts as a consultant to Asian-American businesses getting started.

The other candidates for the two-year seat sought by Nguyen and Lam are Norman Lawson, a landlord and stage technician; Margie Rice, a school board trustee; Helena K. Rutkowski, a personnel commissioner, and Loretta A. Walker, a local businesswoman and homemaker.

The seat was vacated in mid-term by Councilwoman Joy L. Neugebauer who is running for mayor. Two four-year seats also are on the ballot.

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