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Career has ‘victory’ written all over it

In no small metaphor, Janet Nguyen held her election night party on Main Street. In a Mexican restaurant with an outsized Elvis figure just inside the door, as her coterie of Vietnamese and Anglo friends and relatives waited on the returns. As soccer, hockey and basketball played on TV screens.

But even as the fog rolled in late to coat the neighborhood, and the returns left it unclear whether Nguyen had made history or just come close, it was easy to foresee many other election nights for the 30-year-old Garden Grove councilwoman.

It was an election in which she might have settled just for making a good showing. Instead, at night’s end she was holding a 52-vote lead in attempting to become Orange County’s youngest supervisor ever.

And the first Vietnamese American.

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And the first woman elected out of the 1st District.

“Do not ignore a councilwoman from Garden Grove!” she called out to supporters when the night’s final tally was in but still too uncertain to declare victory.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the news turned sour for Janet Nguyen. The final tally showed her finishing second by seven votes -- out of nearly 46,000 cast -- to Garden Grove school board member Trung Nguyen (no relation).

The night before, Nguyen had said that a loss wouldn’t devastate her. Nor end her political career.

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Throughout the evening that brought the usual election night mix of fun and nerves for Team Nguyen, the candidate often seemed the coolest kitty in the room -- even as it became obvious that presumed favorite Tom Umberg was submerging early and she just might do it. Nguyen had been saying all night that Umberg was the person she had to beat to win.

As her supporters huddled around laptops, awaiting results that came in on the half-hour starting at 9 p.m., Nguyen patiently conducted a series of interviews with English- and Vietnamese-speaking reporters.

Hard to believe, she said as we talked in her brother-in-law Jimmy Gaughan’s office on Main Street, that history was upon her. Born in Saigon in 1976, she and her family left Vietnam when she was 5 and settled in San Bernardino. The family of six moved to Garden Grove in late 1990, living only a few blocks from where she now awaited election results.

She wanted to be a doctor. So sure were her parents of her focus as a youngster, she said, that as far back as elementary school they never looked at her report cards. “There was an expectation already of me, that I was going to be the doctor in the family.” Her parents didn’t pressure her, she said; they just took for granted she would take care of business.

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She did, but it all changed her sophomore year at UC Irvine when then-Supervisor Bill Steiner taught a class she needed for a social sciences requirement. Inspired by his view of what politics can do for people, she altered her life’s course, although not telling her parents for a year that she’d changed her major to political science and wouldn’t become an obstetrician, after all.

On Tuesday night, mainly because he was standing nearest to her, Steiner was the first person she hugged when the good news came in. “I tried to talk her out of this 10 years ago,” joked Steiner, for whom Nguyen once interned.

Nguyen said she didn’t know Steiner was coming. “Ten years ago, I started as an intern knowing nothing about politics,” she said when the hugging stopped. “Ten years later, he’s rooting me on to run for supervisor.”

What do you like about Nguyen, I asked of Scott Weimer, president of the Garden Grove Business Assn., as we stood outside the restaurant earlier in the evening. “Youth and ambition,” he replied.

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Smart? To be sure, he said, then added: “More important than the intellectual quotient is the integrity quotient. There’s a whole lot of smart politicians out there -- too damn smart.”

Steiner also thinks she has a bright future in politics. People who underestimate her do so at their peril, he said.

Before the returns came in, Nguyen had said she needed a big Vietnamese-American vote but that she couldn’t win with only that. I asked if she was ready at 30 to be a supervisor.

“I am,” she said. “I’ve worked for two supervisors. I’ve worked for an assemblyman. At 22, I was a district director. I love this district. It is the poorest district in the county. When my family came, we had nothing. We went to the Salvation Army for clothes. We went to church for Christmas presents. We were on welfare, food stamps. My father was a community college busboy trying to learn English. I know this district. I know what it is to accomplish what everybody thinks is impossible.”

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Her father died the day before she won her council seat in 2004. On this day, she visited his gravesite in the morning.

She was 28 when she won in 2004, finishing a strong second in a crowded field and becoming the first woman on the council in 35 years. Like then, she thinks people underestimated her because of her youth and because she’s a woman and ethnic minority. She’s a Republican, but the bulk of the county’s GOP influence was directed toward another candidate who finished far back. I detect a trace of the underdog’s resentment in her, but it’s not off-putting and is greatly overshadowed by her easy manner and what her inner circle describes as her fierce determination to go after what she wants.

She never lost that surface calm Tuesday night.

At 9 p.m., she was at 26.4% and in second place. At 9:30, she slipped to 25.2% but remained in second. At 10 p.m., she caught the leader, Trung Nguyen, and led by 24 votes, with 153 of the 179 precincts reporting.

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As 10:30 neared, her supporters grew more animated. They called out a two-minute warning. Then 70 seconds. With a minute to go, her brother-in-law summoned her to the laptop to see what presumably would be the final count.

Her supporters counted down the last 10 seconds. “Four-three-two-one....”

It showed her with the 52-vote lead. It took a moment or so for Supervisor Chris Norby, who had dropped by, to say that all precincts were in. “It’s over,” he said.

And the celebration began.

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She walked down the sidewalk with relatives, so it was hard to see how emotional she was. But she never strayed far from the cool exterior she’d shown all night.

She gives off a distinct vibe of a woman who knows herself well. Earlier, I’d asked if this was but one stop on a long political road. She didn’t say no but smiled when I said that perhaps modesty prevented her from declaring the sky as the limit.

“I can’t run for president. How’s that?” she said, laughing.

Even with the Wednesday afternoon reversal, one thing is for sure: She’s got time.

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I thought about that Wednesday and about the exultant countdown the night before, on what had been her biggest night in politics.

A countdown to a career, I suspect, that is primed for blastoff.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com.


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