The first Vietnamese American in the country was elected to public office 16 years ago when Tony Lam won a seat on the Westminster City Council, making history for a refugee group that fled after the Vietnam War and settled in Orange County.
Lam’s election made national headlines and Vietnamese leaders had high hopes that he would become the bridge to help connect mainstream America and the Vietnamese.
At the time, demographics hardly helped Lam: Only 2,000 Vietnamese Americans in Westminster were registered to vote, and Vietnamese Americans made up only one-fifth of the city’s residents.
Since Lam’s election, Orange County has become the center of Vietnamese American political power. And this year, Westminster could become the first city in America with a Vietnamese-majority council. It would be a milestone for the small, conservative city transformed by refugees into the thriving business and cultural enclave of Little Saigon.
Today, one-third of Westminster’s 96,000 residents are Vietnamese American. And they make a sizable voting bloc: Nearly 40% of Westminster’s registered voters are Vietnamese American, according to a 2006 Asian Pacific American Legal Center study.
The county now has 10 elected Vietnamese American officials, including an assemblyman and a county supervisor.
A handful of others could join their ranks in November, when 13 Vietnamese Americans compete for public office in Orange County in contests that include school boards and city councils, the same number who ran for local office in 2006.
“I think the fact that there are many candidates is quite significant given that Vietnamese Americans have not been here very long,” said Linda Vo, chair of the Asian American studies department at UC Irvine. “Vietnamese Americans are, in some ways, still newcomers to the political process.”
Vietnamese Americans have made political gains in central Orange County in part because the community continues to grow and non-Vietnamese voters have become more comfortable with Vietnamese candidates, Vo said.
The growing clout of Vietnamese American voters became clear in a 2007 special election when two little-known Vietnamese candidates eclipsed a field of far better-known politicians running for a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Some political observers saw it as a watershed moment for Orange County, an election that forecast change in a county with a reputation for electing white, wealthy politicians. In June, three Vietnamese candidates campaigned for the same seat.
But with political success has come division.
A rift between the county’s two highest-ranking Vietnamese politicians -- Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove) and Supervisor Janet Nguyen -- has drawn Vietnamese voters into camps. Both are Republicans, mirroring the majority of Vietnamese voters.
The razor-thin 2007 county supervisor race between Janet Nguyen and Trung Nguyen showcased both the Vietnamese community’s voting strength and its fractious nature, driven less by ideology than personality and rivalry. Trung Nguyen is allied with Tran, who had established himself as a kingmaker of sorts in Vietnamese American politics.
Janet Nguyen eventually won by three votes after a recount. She then won a full term in June, though Tran again backed her main opponent.
Trung Nguyen is now running for a seat on the Garden Grove City Council in a crowded field of challengers, including Andrew Do, Janet Nguyen’s chief of staff. They are two of three Vietnamese Americans in the 10-candidate field running for two seats on the Garden Grove council. The others are Tom Bailor, Tony Flores, Linh Ho, Steve Jones, Joshua Leimbach, Paul Lucas, Robin Marcario and Charles Mitchell Jr..
Recent elections have shown that Vietnamese Americans are faithful voters and tend to cast ballots along ethnic lines.
But as more jump into political battles, Vietnamese voters are basing decisions on issues, political affiliation and ideology.
A crowded field of candidates shows a maturing process in Vietnamese politics, Vo said. Some might stray outside ethnic lines when it comes time to vote, she said.
“I hope it gives Vietnamese an opportunity to pay attention to candidates and what they stand for and not vote for candidates just because they are Vietnamese,” Vo said.
In Westminster, 25-year-old Truong Diep is running for a seat on the Westminster council using a time-tested platform in Orange County: public safety, keeping taxes steady and cracking down on white-collar crime. Diep said he is not relying solely on the Vietnamese vote. He is running against Frank Fry, Alin Hamade, Allan Krippner and Penny Loomer.
“I am trying to appeal to everyone,” Diep said. “It’s just icing on the cake that if I win, it will be an ethnically Vietnamese majority.”
The fact that the prospect of a Vietnamese-majority council is not causing a commotion indicates that Vietnamese American politicians have become a mainstay in Orange County, said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.
It also means politicians must court Vietnamese voters, he said. “I suspect that in the future, all of Orange County’s politicians will mark Tet (the Vietnamese new year) on their calendar.”
As for Lam, he decided to leave politics after 10 years in office, weathering a time of upheaval in Little Saigon and being criticized for failing to join the massive 1999 protests against a Little Saigon store owner who displayed communist icons. He now manages a Lee’s Sandwiches store in Westminster.