Three years ago, Madison Nguyen became the fresh new face of Vietnamese American politics, an upward-bound city politician in San Jose. She was splashed on magazine covers; the chosen one who seemingly held the hopes of the city’s emerging Vietnamese community.
Now she is in a fight for her political career, targeted by Vietnamese Americans who believe she has betrayed them.
Voters will decide on Tuesday whether to unseat the 34-year-old councilwoman. It would be the first time a Vietnamese American is recalled from public office. Some believe it may be a bigger test: whether Vietnamese politics in America can move beyond an agenda defined by the expectation that those the community elects will do as they’re told.
For more than a year, Nguyen has been under fire for refusing to name the city’s first Vietnamese shopping district Little Saigon, the name of the bustling ethnic enclave in Orange County and one adopted by Vietnamese communities throughout the country. To some, the name represents a united front against the communist regime that many immigrants fled.
Nguyen’s proposal, Saigon Business District, was viewed as an insult by some Vietnamese Americans, even though Nguyen said it was a political compromise hammered out after considering more than half a dozen names. She said she was trying to balance competing interests from constituents inside and outside the Vietnamese community.
But Nguyen’s attempt at political independence and compromise backfired. Thousands protested outside City Hall. An activist staged a 29-day hunger strike. Hundreds chastised her at a City Council meeting, invoking their struggles escaping the communist government after the Vietnam War.
“She has completely lost the trust of the people,” said Paul Loc Le, a local accountant and onetime Nguyen supporter who is now treasurer for the recall campaign.
Nguyen said she is suffering the pitfalls that come when an ethnic politician tries to exert political independence that can clash with cultural expectations.
“The Vietnamese community is one of the most complex communities I have dealt with,” Nguyen said. “It’s ironic that it is my own community.”
While Nguyen has remained stoic in the face of the storm, her foes have been quick to jump on perceived missteps. When she told a crowd of college students that the recall effort had become a “circus,” the interpretation by some Vietnamese Americans was that she had called her constituents animals.
Debate over the recall has washed across San Jose’s Vietnamese community, dominating Vietnamese talk radio and spilling into the coffeehouses and pho noodle shops that dot Story Road in the heart of the enclave.
Recall backers believe that the majority of the city’s Vietnamese Americans oppose Nguyen and that the vote will prove they can marshal enough political power to push out one of their own.
Nguyen dismisses the perception that she has lost favor in her council district. Although some Vietnamese constituents disagreed with her about the shopping district’s name, she said, interactions she’s had while campaigning lead her to believe they are ready to move on.
For Nguyen, the recall is a test of whether Vietnamese American voters can move beyond the one-agenda politics that she says have defined the ethnic community.
“The responsibility that comes with being the daughter of the community is tremendous. It’s an honor to have, but in actually, it is not realistic,” Nguyen said. “I can’t say yes all the time. I can’t just listen to one person. I am responsible for all my constituents. I’m not just a daughter in the Vietnamese American community alone.”
Nguyen said the district-naming debacle taught her lessons about representing the Vietnamese community, such as the need to invite more input and dialogue.
Nguyen said she tries to go beyond the standard duties of a council member by bringing her Vietnamese American constituents to the table: personally calling community leaders, publicizing town hall meetings in the Vietnamese media and attending a slew of cultural and political events.
Her office, she says, routinely helps Vietnamese Americans throughout the Bay Area, on topics that include immigration services and housing issues. She points to projects launched to benefit Vietnamese Americans: a community center and a heritage garden.
But recall backers remain wary. These projects, they say, show that Nguyen caters to a small circle of “cronies.”
“Madison only trusts her very closest group and disregards the rest of the community,” said Le, the accountant. “That makes people angry. She promised at the beginning she would work for everyone, not just special interests.”
Nguyen’s anti-recall campaign is aimed at shoring up her ties to the Vietnamese community. A glossy mailer in Vietnamese reminds constituents that she too was a refugee who fled Vietnam by boat after the war. In a DVD she gave to constituents, Nguyen is shown wearing traditional ao dai tunics and lobbying for the state to officially adopt the yellow-and-red striped flag of South Vietnam, which remains a powerful symbol to Vietnamese Americans.
“At times, it can be heart-wrenching because the same people that I wholeheartedly want to represent in office, and still do, are the same people who oppose everything I am doing,” she said.
Recall backers say Nguyen’s outreach comes too late and that her mistakes go far beyond the naming issue. Crime in the district has risen, they say, tax money has been squandered and backroom deals with developers have been made. “The Little Saigon name was only the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Le said.
Nguyen says the accusations are false and politically inspired.
Both sides are expecting a high turnout from Vietnamese voters. Still, the ethnic group makes up less than 30% of the council district, so both sides are lobbying Latino and white voters as well. If Nguyen is recalled, there will be a special election to fill her seat. And, Nguyen said, she might regroup and run again.