Huge political victory for O.C. Vietnamese Americans is threatened by ugly infighting
Westminster residents waited decades for their City Council to become the nation’s first with a Vietnamese American majority. Now some are watching with growing frustration and anger as that majority threatens to implode.
City Council meetings, on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month, have degenerated into tag-team verbal brawls. One night, it’s accusations of running a dictatorship. Other nights, it’s a public official, in tears, threatening to sue a colleague.
Then there are the charges of nepotism, the countercharges of slander, and one council member’s Facebook rant that rekindled bruised feelings and bitter memories dating to the Vietnam War.
It’s become must-watch TV for residents of the Orange County city, who are following the explosive drama on local cable. The infighting has gotten so bad that it practically has paralyzed the City Council and spurred recall efforts against all five members.
Michael Tran, a 20-year resident, says that instead of focusing on issues like the region’s affordable housing crisis or the potential shake-up of a popular mobile home park, his city is “stuck in never-ending arguments between leaders who are like actors trying to learn their roles.”
“I don’t need to watch much Netflix,” Tran says. “I have this.”
The nastiness on the council plays out between the so-called gang of three — Mayor Tri Ta and firm allies Kimberly Ho and Chi Charlie Nguyen — versus the remaining two, newcomer Tai Do and veteran Sergio Contreras, who has held leadership roles in Westminster for about 15 years.
Do sees himself as a reformer willing to take on what he regards as the cronyish and ethically questionable behavior of the council majority. The three-member majority views Do as a grandstander who’s attacking them to elevate his own profile.
The trio frequently chide Do for what they deem “unacceptable” behavior, starting with his insistence on creating a code of ethics for a city that, according to Ta, the mayor, “operates well” and “already has procedures set up for ethical standards and training.”
“We respect each other and we did not have disagreements until the new person came on the council,” he said, referring to Do, who was elected in November.
Former Mayor Margie Rice, a 60-year resident who keeps tabs on the action in person and from her home TV, describes council meetings as “a circus.”
“Those people take up precious time conducting business other than city business, and you never know when they will detour from the agenda with their personal issues,” she said.
Tran thinks the council’s antics could hinder the Vietnamese American community’s growing political clout in parts of Orange County.
“Vietnamese voters have waited so long to see their numbers multiply in terms of leadership,” he said. “And just because four people can’t play nice, we may lose valuable voices and the ability to make positive changes.”
Leadership churn has been an ongoing issue in Westminster, which has had 10 city managers in the last 14 years, and five police chiefs in the last eight years. Four of the current council members are Vietnamese Americans, in a city where more than 50% of the 98,000 residents have Vietnamese ancestry.
As the recall effort indicates, residents are divided.
Linda Nguyen, a clerical worker from Westminster, said that she has witnessed Ta, Nguyen (no relation) and Ho at public events and appreciates “how they carry themselves, representing our culture. They are symbols of success and I’m glad they’re showing Orange County the power of the Viet vote.”
But Roger Fierce, a 57-year resident, strongly supports Do because he thinks Do has the integrity and necessary backbone to push “urgent” reforms.
“Our city is out of control,” Fierce said.
The seeds of disagreement sprouted early.
Do, who holds a day job as a Long Beach police officer, said that he based his election campaign on a platform of transparency, prompted by a 2016 lawsuit filed by former Police Chief Kevin Baker accusing council members, including Ta, of corruption. The case highlighted “intimidation and revenge” targeting both citizens and employees. The city denied the allegations, and officials eventually settled out of court for $500,000.
“No one dared to ask hard questions about what’s been happening to lose the trust of the people in Westminster,” Do said. “My goal is to bring trust and accountability back to City Hall.”
Do pushed for a written code of ethics that eventually prompted Ho, a business owner, to tearfully question whether her new colleague was implying that the more experienced council members had done something wrong. At a February meeting, she warned him, “If you don’t watch what you say, I’m going to send a defamation lawsuit your way.”
Ultimately, the council adopted a one-page code of ethics in late May, watered down from the 12-page draft supported by Do and written with the help of resident David Johnson, whom Do later appointed to the city’s Community Services and Recreation Commission.
Do and Contreras abstained from the vote, prompting Ta, in an interview, to attack Do for “pushing and pushing for this, and in the end he didn’t take a stand.”
“It was a waste of time,” Ta said. “I still believe the citizens can see through the new person. He has no vision or grand plan while I’ve been trying to serve fairly — and to work with all communities.”
Councilman Nguyen, an engineer, backed the mayor, saying of Do: “He just brings up side issues, not relevant issues. He’s creating distractions and he is recruiting people to take our seats from us.”
Faced now with a recall, Nguyen said that if anyone has to step down, the victims will be “the residents who we are working for as we focus on developing more business for the city.”
For a recall to appear on the primary election ballot in March 2020, supporters need to collect signatures from 20% of Westminster’s registered voters — totaling 8,736 people. About 200 volunteers from different political parties have signed up to assist in that work, according to organizers, and training began last week.
Johnson, whom Do appointed to a commission and who later helped launch Westminster United to unseat Ho, Nguyen and Ta, said that he and proponents posted four polls on Facebook groups and the NextDoor social media app asking if residents were in favor of a recall. Overall, recall supporters include people in their 20s to 70s, Johnson said, representing all of Westminster’s major ethnic groups.
“Yet this is not about ethnicity,” added Johnson, a 12-year resident. Initially, he said, the recall effort was spurred by Vietnamese veterans upset that Ta had backed a proclamation honoring a Vietnamese actress in a human trafficking movie made in communist Vietnam.
“This has nothing to do with Little Saigon politics,” Johnson said. “We need replacement candidates who have a servant leadership heart, a critical-thinking mind and represent everyone.”
Both Nguyen and Ta say they respects voters’ rights to initiate a recall. “I have always tried my very best to represent everyone in the city,” Ta added, “and even if this is a part-time job, I have been available 24/7.”
But during a recent news conference, the mayor denounced what he said were “bait and switch” tactics being used to gather signatures for the recall effort. Nguyen said that voters should ask themselves “where is the evidence” of any wrongdoing.
Lou DeSipio, a UC Irvine professor of political science who studies ethnic politics, said that his students called his attention to the drama in Westminster.
“I’ve never seen this broad of a recall, which I believe is unprecedented in California,” he said. “Certainly, everyone has their principles, but the nature of a small group like that is they should be able to work out their differences.”
DeSipio suggested that such a sweeping recall effort, targeting all five members, may be “too complex for people to process. It may alienate voters.” The council’s combative politics, he continued, may be a legacy of Vietnamese Americans having been “excluded from politics for too long.”
“Sometimes, when you finally get into a representative position, you still have that street fighter mentality that it’s hard to let go,” he said. “They need to learn to make the transition into coalition builders.”
Tony Lam, the first Vietnamese American elected to political office in the U.S. when he won a Westminster council seat in 1992, said he’s been shocked by the actions of current leaders.
“They embarrass themselves,” he said. “I am not taking sides, but I’m calling on them to refrain from fighting.”
Lam and other residents also are critical of a move by the majority trio in June to change how council members can introduce items on a meeting agenda.
In previous years, any of the five could ask the city manager to schedule an item on the agenda for discussion. Now, the trio asked for suggestions to be voiced during council meetings and a majority of the five has to agree before any items can be placed on a future agenda. The mayor would still have the right to introduce items without a majority vote.
Ho and Ta maintain that the revision is crucial to avoid having council members waste time on non-issues or frivolous matters.
Contreras and Do fought the idea vigorously, stressing that it could hamper their work with residents since their three colleagues effectively could screen them out from deliberations — or block any motions they might try to introduce.
“It sounds like totalitarianism,” Contreras told Ta in a June meeting. “You are shutting out the minority who elected us.”
Contreras, a former Westminster school board member who was born and raised in the city, said he is worried infighting “will paralyze us. Our job is to bring people together, but I’m just caught in the crossfire.”
He believes that he and his colleagues, who earn a stipend of about $800 a month, should turn their focus to raising revenue and finding ways to make Westminster safer. “It’s tragic, it really is. Don’t forget we all live here. We share the same roads, same city services.”
Rice, the former mayor, and other residents also have accused Ho and Nguyen of nepotism after they elevated each other’s children to city commissions last January.
Nguyen appointed Weston Seid, Ho’s son, to Westminster’s Planning Commission, and Ho appointed Nguyen’s daughter, Christine, to the Community Services and Recreation Commission. Opponents rallied, accusing both officials of trying to consolidate power for their families in the city.
“They’re doing damn well what they want to do, they don’t care what the public says,” Rice said, adding that she supports recalling the trio.
Underlying the city’s present tensions are decades-old divisions and lingering wounds from the Vietnam War era. Do stirred them up when, following the June 12 vote limiting agenda items, he posted on Facebook that “Westminster is officially now Ho Chi Minh City.”
His words, alluding to the renaming of Saigon by the victorious North Vietnamese, sparked Ta to call an emergency meeting to debate the “damaging comments,” which he said brought back pain for the tens of thousands of fellow Vietnamese who fled their communist homeland.
The trio eventually approved a news release attacking Do’s description, reassuring residents that the council has no intention of changing Westminster’s motto, “All American City,” into “any unacceptable communist city.”
But with the ongoing drama, DeSipio believes that “all sides are tainted.”
“This is a game of one-upping each other, and none of them knows how to back down,” he said. “We’ll see what happens to representation, but hopefully, in a few years, for Vietnamese Americans born here there will be political realism to unite. Meanwhile, their community could suffer loss.”
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