Not long ago, Little Saigon was more famous for anti-communist demonstrations directed at Vietnam than for participating in conventional democratic exercises in America.
Yet after all of the votes were counted in early December, Little Saigon had taken a big step forward in becoming an area where its voters, not its protesters, were the ones to be feared.
Not only did retiring Westminster Councilman Tony Lam transfer his seat to 30-year-old Planning Commissioner Andy Quach, but attorney Lan Nguyen also scored an upset, using a strong absentee ballot campaign to come from 700 votes behind to win a seat on the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Trustees by less than 100 votes. Nguyen and Quach joined Garden Grove council member Van Tran as the only elected Vietnamese Americans in Southern California.
Quach, a two-time candidate and Republican congressional aide, was an overwhelming winner; Nguyen, a first-timer without experience in partisan politics, faced a more serious challenge.
The Garden Grove Unified School District extends well beyond Asian American hubs in Westminster and Garden Grove to parts of Santa Ana, Stanton, Fountain Valley, Cypress and Anaheim. Furthermore, the newcomer was up against two two-term Republican incumbents presiding over a district that has won awards as one of the best systems in the country. Nearly every factor in the race favored the status quo.
Nguyen made two decisions that helped him win -- and, in the process, turn the Vietnamese American community into a force with which to be reckoned.
The first was a furious, six-week voter registration drive that used the popular Vietnamese-language media as well as volunteer youth organizations. Nguyen sought to expand his potential electorate rather than focus simply on sending mail to high-propensity voters.
The strategy worked. A Pacific Opinions analysis of voter records indicates that more than 3,700 Vietnamese American voters were added to county rolls between early September and election day, with more than 2,000 in Westminster and Garden Grove alone. Ten percent of the 33,000 Vietnamese Americans who voted countywide in November did so for the first time. Turnout among Vietnamese Americans in the district was 53%, higher than the countywide average.
Nguyen also extended an olive branch to local Latinos. A year ago, local Latino and Asian American organizations presented competing plans and fought each other for representation in the county's redistricting process. This time, they fought on the same side. Nguyen distributed literature in Spanish and ran a tag-team effort with Latino leaders, including Zeke Hernandez, the president of Santa Ana's League of United Latin American Citizens and a candidate for Santa Ana City Council.
It was at Nguyen's victory party that the coalition prospects between the county's two largest minority groups flowered. Hernandez spoke of the "great steps" Latinos and Vietnamese were taking while Santa Ana School Board President John Palacio added that "the Vietnamese community is a friend of the Latino community." Both received warm applause from the estimated 250 who came to eat cha gio (Vietnamese eggrolls) and cheer the new Vietnamese Trifecta of Tran, Quach and Nguyen.
Should relations between the two groups develop, it would become a coalition of consequence in several areas throughout northern and central Orange County. Minorities could become the majority on a number of city councils and school boards.
Latino challengers pitted against one another in Santa Ana and Anaheim might turn to the nearly 15,000 Vietnamese American voters in those cities. A minority candidate in the 68th Assembly District or 1st Supervisorial District (where approximately 1 in 5 voters is Vietnamese American and 1 in 4 is Latino) could conceivably benefit from that demographic blend. In a crowded race for either of these seats, a lone Vietnamese American or Latino candidate would probably bring enough ethnic votes to threaten any challenger.
Although the Vietnamese American electorate has grown 21% since 2000, some significant challenges remain. The most important will be to avoid the community's infamous infighting and to channel the ambitions of aspiring leaders to different offices.
Quach's victory is instructive. Just two years earlier, he, along with two Vietnamese American rivals, mounted a campaign for the same city council seat that fractured the community vote; all three lost, and two white incumbents kept their seats.
But the unity that Lam and other first-generation refugees worked for over the last quarter-century is becoming attainable as the new generation ascends. Politics in Hanoi will not be forgotten, but expect more focus on the politics of Orange County and, at some point, Sacramento and Washington.
When the newly energized electorate that put Tran, Quach and Nguyen in office manifests a similar passion for a candidate of another ethnicity, perhaps Latino, or a political party or ballot measure, it will be said without hesitation that Little Saigon is not so little anymore.