Sixteen years ago, a 56-year-old Vietnamese refugee canvassed the streets of a conservative Orange County city with red, white and blue campaign posters.
A diminutive man with a showman’s personality, Tony Lam became the first Vietnamese American in the country elected to public office. At a time when Vietnamese refugees were still reshaping the strawberry and bean fields of Westminster into the streets of Little Saigon, Lam was the lone Vietnamese face in the world of American politics.
And for nearly a decade, he remained the sole Vietnamese person to hold that distinction.
There are now 10 Vietnamese Americans from Orange County who have been elected to school boards, city councils, the county Board of Supervisors and the state Assembly.
And this week, after the last of the absentee ballots had been counted, Westminster -- a blue-collar town that recoiled when the first waves of refugees moved in 33 years ago -- became the first city in the nation with a majority Vietnamese American city council.
The political muscle of Vietnamese Americans has been building for years. They vote with gusto, are increasingly running for office and, in a county with a reputation for political conservatism, have been faithfully Republican.
“It wasn’t that long ago that . . . members of the Vietnamese community were coming to the United States in dire straits after the fall of Saigon,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “When it comes to the political rise of ethnic groups, [Vietnamese Americans] have actually risen very rapidly.”
Once marginalized, Vietnamese American voters are now wooed by Orange County’s white and Latino politicians alike, many of whom translate their campaign mailers and posters into Vietnamese and make a point to pose with the yellow and red striped flag of the fallen country of South Vietnam. They are fixtures at cultural events including the Vietnamese New Year’s parade, and they attend rallies in Little Saigon condemning Vietnam’s communist government, a passionate issue for those who fled Vietnam.
“I don’t believe in central Orange County you can be a successful elected official without the Vietnamese vote,” said state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), who hired Vietnamese American staffers and even participated in a hunger strike advocating for human rights in Vietnam.
This year, 13 Vietnamese Americans competed for public office in Orange County contests that included school board and city council seats, the same number who ran for local office in 2006. Four ran in 2000.
Truong Diep, whose election gave Westminster its majority-Vietnamese council, is facing a recount. In neighboring Garden Grove, Andrew Do became the fourth Vietnamese American elected to the council since 2000.
“This has become a turning point for the Vietnamese American community in that you see a number of Vietnamese Americans consistently running for office and being elected to office,” said Linda Vo, chairwoman of UC Irvine’s Asian American studies department.
The growing strength of Vietnamese American voters became clear in a 2007 special election for an open county supervisor seat, when two little-known Vietnamese candidates upstaged a field of better-known politicians, including a former assemblyman and candidates anointed by the county Republican and Democratic parties. Observers called the election a “political earthquake.”
This year, as Supervisor Janet Nguyen successfully ran for a full term, all of the candidates were Vietnamese.
“The Vietnamese American community has gone a long way in finding its political voice,” said Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove), who has come to be regarded as a political kingmaker of sorts by supporting a broad coalition of Vietnamese American candidates.
Outside Orange County, which has the greatest concentration of Vietnamese outside their homeland, few Vietnamese officials have emerged: a councilwoman in San Jose and a member of the Texas House of Representatives.
Vietnamese American politicians have been able to rise in central Orange County partly because the community has grown and non-Vietnamese voters have become more comfortable with Vietnamese candidates, Vo said.
Today, Vietnamese are the largest Asian ethnic group in Orange County, with about 150,000 residents. The county’s Asian American population has grown by more than two-thirds in the last few years, while whites, who once made up nearly 80% of the population, are now barely half.
“Orange County is no longer the citadel of Anglo-Saxons that the stereotype would have you believe,” Pitney said. “It is an amazingly pluralistic community, and the politics are reflecting that.”
It was a different landscape when Lam ran for office in 1992. A restaurant owner, he had found himself the go-to man for newly arrived refugees seeking advice on everything from getting driver’s licenses to opening businesses, and as a community leader when tensions exploded between Westminster’s established residents and the new Vietnamese immigrants.
There were few Vietnamese radio programs and newspapers to spread word of Lam’s candidacy, and only a few thousand Vietnamese were registered to vote. Lam worked to register new Vietnamese voters and campaigned heavily outside their enclave, repeating that he was “more than an Asian American candidate.”
Lam left politics after 10 years in office, weathering a time of turmoil in Little Saigon and being criticized for failing to join the massive 1999 street protests against a Little Saigon store owner who displayed communist icons. He now manages a Lee’s Sandwiches, officially retired from politics.
As Little Saigon grew, so did its political savvy. The Vietnamese now are a sizable voting bloc: Nearly 40% of Westminster’s registered voters are Vietnamese American, and Vietnamese radio talk shows and newspapers follow every move of local Vietnamese politicians. Hundreds of Vietnamese Americans attended a council meeting last year to oppose a proposed casino in Garden Grove.
Vietnamese have historically voted largely Republican, identifying with the party’s historic anti-Communist stance, Vo said, though the number of Vietnamese Democrats and voters who decline to state parties has increased.
As Vietnamese Americans have continued to rack up political successes, divisions have grown. Discord between the county’s two highest-ranking Vietnamese politicians -- Tran and Nguyen -- has drawn Vietnamese voters into two camps.
That, Vo said, is simply a part of the growing pains of political maturation.
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Vietnamese in Westminster
Registered Vietnamese voters
1990: Approx. 2,000
Sources: U.S. Census, Asian Pacific American Legal Center.
Graphics reporting by My-Thuan Tran
Los Angeles Times