Every time she looks up at California’s Capitol dome and walks into the grand old building, says freshman state Sen. Janet Nguyen, “I think to myself, ‘Wow!’
“I’m one of 40 state senators in California. Never in my entire life did I think I would become a state senator. It’s the coolest thing.
“That’s the American dream,” she continues. “That’s what America is about.”
That may sound a little hokey to many jaded natives. But from the lips of this 38-year-old Santa Ana Republican — the first Vietnamese American state senator in U.S. history — it has the ring of sincerity. She is, literally, a gung-ho flag-waver and it’s understandable.
At age 3, Nguyen’s family joined the boat people fleeing Vietnam after the communist takeover. Actually, they had tried to escape several times and failed.
Her uncle had been an officer in the South Vietnamese army and, after Saigon fell, was assassinated in front of his village and family. Her father, a lower-ranking soldier, was designated for a reeducation camp. The family took off.
“Every time my parents attempted to escape, my father would be put in prison,” Nguyen says. After being freed the last time, her dad and her brother fled by themselves and made it to Thailand. Then her mom was jailed.
A year later, Nguyen, her mom and sister crammed into a packed 32-foot wooden boat and headed into the Gulf of Thailand. But Thailand wasn’t accepting any more refugees and turned the boat away. The refugees finally swam to shore and the Nguyen family was reunited.
Nguyen acknowledges she doesn’t remember much — only being saved at sea by a rescue ship that delivered food and water.
“I remember the toothpaste,” she says. “To this day I have no problem going to the dentist. I look forward to it. People think I’m crazy.”
In Thailand, the family hooked up with a Seventh-day Adventist Church group that sponsored its flight to California in 1981 when Nguyen was 5. It was taken to San Bernardino but later moved to Orange County, which it considered more Asian-friendly.
“We were very poor and didn’t speak any English,” she says. “I remember going to school and people looking at me very differently. ‘Who are these Asian fellows coming in?’
“We were on welfare with food stamps and bought clothes from the Salvation Army. When I was 10, I’d go along with other people to help clean houses and make a little money. My parents had different odd jobs. We had multiple families living together.”
Nguyen made it into UC Irvine as a pre-med major but caught the political bug from a political science teacher.
“My father said, ‘You escaped a government, now you’re going to be part of one?’ ” she recalls.
“I wanted to be proactive and not reactive. I wanted to be at the table for someone like me, a woman, a minority, a refugee, a taxpayer. I wanted to be at the table when laws were created. I believe that government works for the people.”
That last sentence doesn’t sound like some Republicans I know. Why’d she choose the GOP? Because, she says, Republicans always have been anti-communist. It was President Reagan who began tearing down the Berlin Wall. “That was my first impression.”
The GOP, she continues, “is the party of the entrepreneur. Of opportunity. Of making sure we’re not in debt. Of taking care of people in need.”
Well, it needs to work a bit on that latter theme.
At 28, Nguyen became the youngest person ever elected to the Garden Grove City Council. At 30, she was the youngest Orange County supervisor, beating another Vietnamese American by three votes.
“She knows retail politics as well as anyone I’ve ever worked with,” says her veteran campaign consultant, Dave Gilliard. “She’s tireless and jumps right into the middle of the crowd. She understands what it takes to be a successful politician.”
She is also articulate and smiles constantly.
Last year, a state Senate seat opened up and she ran in a district with a 4-percentage-point Democratic advantage. Gov. Jerry Brown strongly endorsed her favored opponent, former Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio. It backfired for the Dems.
Nguyen mailed fliers to Vietnamese American voters reminding them that after Saigon’s fall, then-Gov. Brown had complained about refugees settling in his state. His administration had even tried to block some arrivals.
I quoted Brown back then: “There is something a little strange about saying, ‘Let’s bring in 500,000 more people’ when we can’t take care of the 1 million [Californians] who are out of work.”
Vietnamese Americans account for 16% of the registered voters in Nguyen’s district and they tend to take elections seriously. Her message: Neither they nor she would be here today if it were up to Brown.
Nguyen won by a near landslide.
It hasn’t all gone smoothly in Sacramento. When a student government group at UC Irvine stupidly tried to ban the American flag from a lobby, she pounced, proposing a state constitutional amendment to outlaw such foolishness. The students were overruled and Nguyen was widely accused in the news media of overreacting.
Maybe she was. But there are a lot worse things in politics than standing up for Old Glory.
She also has introduced legislation to significantly increase the tax credit for child care and to help state residents enrolled in the University of California by freezing tuition and limiting out-of-staters to 10% of enrollment.
Nguyen’s is the kind of old-fashioned, feel-good story we don’t hear enough of anymore — proof that the dream still can be real.