O.C. Assembly candidate works to win votes in Vietnamese community


After one month at sea, the death of nine children aboard their boat and eight months in a Hong Kong refugee camp, Phu Nguyen’s family finally arrived in America. His parents had only $2 in their pockets when they came to Orange County in 1981, Nguyen says, and today they have a multistate corporation and one of the nicest homes in Huntington Beach.

Phu Nguyen: An article in the Sept. 23 LATExtra section about Phu Nguyen, a candidate for the California Assembly, said he was running for a seat in the 47th Assembly District. In fact, Nguyen is seeking a seat in the 68th District. —

That quintessential immigrant story inspired Nguyen, 33, to try to improve the lives of people in Vietnam and in America, he said recently. Now the Democrat is running for the California Assembly seat that represents Costa Mesa, Westminster, Garden Grove and surrounding areas.

A political newcomer, Nguyen has held leadership positions in Vietnamese American groups and has vastly expanded his family’s overseas remittance business, he says. But many of his accomplishments are from his time as a student, and he’s been criticized for his lack of government experience.

“He has no track record, zero background,” says his Republican opponent, Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor.


Online profiles of Nguyen list at least 10 Vietnamese-affiliated groups in which he has had some sort of guiding role, including the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns. and the Vietnamese American Public Affairs Committee.

“Nguyen’s goal in life is to work towards building a truly peaceful, just, prosperous and democratic Vietnam,” says his alumni profile from the University of San Diego, where he earned a master’s degree in peace and justice studies in 2005.

Nguyen is perhaps best known locally for helping to organize Garden Grove’s annual Tet Festival, celebrating the Vietnamese New Year. It’s the largest such festival in the U.S. and has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for community organizations.

Nguyen’s celebration of his cultural heritage makes for an interesting contrast with Mansoor, whose Scandinavian and Egyptian roots don’t play much of a role in his public life. Mansoor, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration, has been criticized as not being proud of his ancestry. Born and raised in the U.S., he says he feels American more than anything else.

“This is the land of immigrants,” Nguyen said. “It’s important that we all know our roots and what our families and ancestors had to go through to get here.”

Before he moved with his wife and two sons to a tidy home in a gated Garden Grove community, Nguyen was raised in a modest one-story house in Westminster.

He lived there while his parents developed their business of shipping goods back to Vietnam. At first, people would send basic items like fabrics. His mother and father called it Hoa Phat after their respective first names.

Eventually, gifts evolved into money and the business became a lucrative remittance company.

Nguyen expanded Hoa Phat from 10 branches throughout the U.S. to nearly 30. The corporate office is in Westminster and outposts can be found in major Vietnamese enclaves from Orlando, Fla., to San Francisco. He has 80 employees.

Nguyen’s detractors, some whom are fiercely anticommunist, say his company is helping the Vietnamese government by pumping money into its economy.

“Official corruption is endemic in Vietnam,” writes Matthew Cunningham, a blogger for the conservative website Red County, “and it is widely assumed government officials take a rake-off as part of allowing money transfers into their country.”

Sensitive about perceptions of wire transfer companies, Nguyen offers to produce a letter signed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It shows, he says, that his company is set up just like Nike or Ford to operate overseas.

The 47th Assembly District is 42% Republican and 33% Democrat. But Nguyen hopes to overcome that edge by wooing Republican Vietnamese voters. Many in Little Saigon have voted Republican in the past, including Nguyen. He voted for Van Tran, the first Vietnamese American elected to any state legislature. With Tran running for Congress, Nguyen and Mansoor are vying for his seat.

Nguyen supported Tran during his first run for Assembly in 2004 but has since “learned about the issues” and switched to the Democratic side, he says.

He majored in political science at Cal State Fullerton, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2002. He considered running for an Orange County supervisorial seat in 2006.

Nguyen said he favors green energy, comprehensive immigration reform, education reform and increased schools spending. One of his largest campaign contributors is the California Teachers Assn. He opposes abortion except in circumstances of rape or incest.

He was raised Catholic and his family was sponsored by Catholic Charities after it fled Vietnam. In Costa Mesa, where the City Council passed a resolution condemning illegal immigration, Nguyen says he senses “an aura of divisiveness and fear.”

But the real dividing question will be whether Vietnamese Americans will vote for Nguyen over Mansoor.