The king of Little Saigon
He runs a trade magazine for the nail salon industry and lives quietly with his family in a small mobile home on the edge of town. But in a city that decades ago rose up as the new capital for Vietnamese outside Vietnam, Tri Ta is suddenly the king of Little Saigon.
Since his election as Westminster’s mayor Tuesday, Ta has been featured on Radio Free Asia, invited to San Jose to meet with Vietnamese leaders and watched as his name rocketed across the Internet, from Houston to Hanoi.
Being mayor of this small central Orange County city means only so much. The pay is modest, $900 a month, and the power limited. But in America’s largest Vietnamese district, Ta is the first Vietnamese American mayor, and his victory will resonate far beyond city limits.
Ta will soon find himself serving “double duty — carrying a double burden,” suggested Van Tran, a former state assemblyman from Orange County who said he was routinely asked to attend events in New York, Florida, Texas and even Europe and Australia because of his standing as a Vietnamese American political figure.
“You wear more hats, not just the hat of a representative who represents a district or a city,” said Tran.
“In other Vietnamese American communities, you have to understand there’s a thirst for their own Vietnamese representative,” Tran added. “They don’t have the know-how, and they’re asking us to share that with them.”
Even though he no longer holds public office, Tran said he was tapped by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign last month to launch a phone-bank operation courting undecided Asian voters in Ohio and Nevada. When he held office, Tran was invited to Washington state to host the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam during a visit to Seattle.
Madison Nguyen, the vice mayor of San Jose, said she is sought out by Vietnamese throughout Northern California, sometimes for routine government matters or questions on subjects such as Medi-Cal benefits. “I have a fiancee or a family member from Vietnam,” she said, describing a typical call. “How can I expedite the process to get them to America?”
Nguyen said she works up to 15 hours a day to keep up with the demands of being the first Vietnamese American council member in San Jose, which has a large Vietnamese community. “The calls don’t stop,” she said.
For Ta, she predicted, “the pressure will come — it will come very fast.”
In the decades since the war in Vietnam ended, voters in Little Saigon — which now sprawls across several central Orange County cities — have elected Vietnamese judges, a county supervisor, council members and school board trustees. But the job as Westminster’s mayor remained out of reach until Ta’s election.
“I think Tri Ta’s election will inspire more Vietnamese Americans to vote and run,” said Linda Vo, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Irvine who said that in the last decade she has witnessed “an unprecedented rise in the number of Vietnamese Americans running for office and winning local elections.”
But it will be crucial for Ta “to continue to build coalitions across racial lines” in the city, she added. Westminster is nearly half Asian, with the rest of the population evenly spit between Latino and white residents.
Unlike previous mayors in Westminster, such as Ta’s six-term predecessor Margie Rice, Ta will be expected to govern with one eye focused on emigre politics — the constant push for freedom in his homeland — to satisfy his countrymen. On the local front, he’ll need to quickly set an agenda on hometown issues to meet the expectations of residents. “With the constant demands, I can just respond to people one day at a time,” he said.
“His election speaks beautifully to what America is all about — just as the election of President Obama speaks volumes about the openness of our political system,” said Tran, a Republican.
“He’s not a politician at heart,” Tran said of the new mayor. “He’s a poet. He has passion. Publicly, I stand next to him when he speaks and when he believes in something, like the need for human rights in Vietnam, he is very assertive.”
Ta, who came to America when he was 19, got a taste of what to expect after Tuesday’s election when he was inundated with phone calls inviting him to community meetings and school events. “Even as we talk the phone keeps ringing,” Ta told reporters, asking his 10-year-old daughter to take messages.
Ngoc Tran, a widow with five sons, said she followed Ta’s victory even through she lives miles away in Anaheim. “It doesn’t matter where he works,” she said. “I can reach him and he can relate to people like me. He will help us.”
Van Tran cited a Vietnamese proverb to describe how Ta’s job will unfold. “Lam dau tram ho,” he said, referring to a daughter-in-law who must please 100 relatives. “I tweaked it,” Tran said. “It’s not 100. but 100,000.”
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