The two cities that make up the heart of Little Saigon will now be led by Vietnamese Americans for the first time — after a final count of ballots in a razor-close municipal election.
Bao Nguyen, a Garden Grove school trustee, beat veteran politician Bruce Broadwater by just 15 votes to become mayor of Garden Grove. In neighboring Westminster, voters reelected Mayor Tri Ta in a more decisive election.
For the record
Nov. 19, 9:32 a.m: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Nguyen left Vietnam as a child, and arrrived in the U.S. in 1975. Nguyen was born in 1980 in a refugee camp in Thailand.
Together, they will be two of the most powerful voices in the nation's largest Vietnamese American community.
"When I entered the race, I knew it would be a battle trying to unseat a 22-year incumbent, but I was confident that Garden Grove was ready for someone new," said Nguyen, whose victory wasn't assured until Tuesday — two weeks after the mid-term elections.
Little Saigon spans four cities in central Orange County but the core of the immigrant community is in Westminster and Garden Grove, two suburban communities that were rapidly transformed when refugees poured into the U.S. after the Vietnam War.
At 34, Nguyen is believed to be the youngest mayor in city history and will be just the second mayor of Vietnamese descent in America.
"I'm excited to begin the work of instituting common sense reforms and changing the culture at City Hall to be more transparent, efficient and inclusive," said Nguyen, who has lived in Garden Grove since he was in the third grade.
"He will do what needs to be done and in a very ethical manner," said Shirley Kellogg, 86, who has lived in the city since it was incorporated in 1956 and met Nguyen eight years ago when he came to the Methodist church she attended to help organize rides for seniors.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Nguyen arrived in the U.S. when he was 3 months old. He went on to attend UC Irvine, became a teacher and now is an organizer with United Domestic Workers.
Frank Kellogg was president of the Garden Grove Unified School District board when the first waves of refugees began pouring into Orange County.
"I really followed with keen interest and admiration the progress the Vietnamese made in our education system — and now on our council. It's a new era," Kellogg said.
Nguyen made headlines in 2000 when he protested Sen. John McCain's use of the word "gooks" to refer to his captors during the Vietnam War. McCain's remarks came during a presidential campaign stump speech in Little Saigon.
"When you say that word, it breeds hate, no matter what he meant," Nguyen told reporters at the time. "It's insensitive to every Asian. To Americans, that gook he's talking about is me, we both look alike."
Today, he takes a more reflective view.
"I want to do everything I can to give hope to young people who are turned off by politics and who feel that their vote wouldn't ever matter. I want to show them that politics can inspire change — especially at the local level."