Kim Nguyen hopes to make history (again) in O.C.’s new Latino-majority supervisor district
Before the O.C. Women’s March filled the streets of downtown Santa Ana in 2019, Garden Grove City Councilwoman Kim Nguyen held a colorful sign at its forefront.
The protest placard listed off all she embodied in adding a dash of defiance to the day.
“Young, Mexican, Vietnamese, female, elected — their worst nightmare!”
By that time, Nguyen shored up her feminist bravado by becoming the first Latina elected to Garden Grove City Council in 2016. In the city’s 60-year history, no Latino had ever served on council before — period.
Nguyen made history by knocking on doors and connecting with voters from the city’s east side, home to long-neglected Latino neighborhoods that finally had a chance at council representation thanks to newly adopted districts.
“I just saw huge disparities and lack of representation on that side of town,” said Nguyen, seated at Steelcraft food court near Garden Grove City Hall. “Ultimately, I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I wanted to be part of the solution.”
These days, the 30-year-old Democrat is readying her walking shoes again, only this time to hit precincts, not a protest. She’s hoping to make history once more by becoming the first Latina ever elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
Nguyen announced her candidacy for District 2, a newly redrawn area that encompasses all of Santa Ana as well as parts Anaheim, Garden Grove, Orange and Tustin, in December. The district carves out a Latino majority of eligible voters for the first time.
Only two Latinos — Gaddi Vasquez and Lou Correa — have ever been elected to the board.
“Can Nguyen win in this district?” she asked rhetorically. “I’ve proven in 2016 and 2020 that I can win in a Latino-majority district with the last name Nguyen.”
Erudite and enthusiastic, Nguyen is fluent in Spanish and is bettering her Vietnamese. She enjoys quesabirria tacos at La Super Birria in Santa Ana as well as a bowl of pho from Pho 79 in Garden Grove.
It’s all part of her biracial upbringing, an identity she brands as “Vietxican,” because “Mexicanese” wouldn’t be as precise.
The daughter of a Vietnamese refugee father and a Mexican immigrant mother, Nguyen grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Goleta with her parents. She recalls being intrigued by elected office in second grade and even thought about what election cycle she would be eligible to run for president in.
A passion for politics matured as she became more self-aware of her childhood as a WIC recipient who endured judgmental stares at grocery stores when her mother used food stamps.
“I always knew that I wanted to serve,” Nguyen said. “It was mainly in just seeing the differences in treatment and livelihood between my two parents.”
Nguyen’s mother carried her in the womb during one of several unauthorized crossings from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant. She saw her father face less hardship in the United States as a Vietnamese refugee who fled a communist country.
After divorce, Nguyen’s father remarried and moved his family to Garden Grove when she was 10. Nguyen attended Santiago High School. Little Saigon deeply immersed her in Vietnamese culture.
While a student at UC Santa Cruz, she became politically involved by interning for former state Sen. Lou Correa. Having earned a political science degree, Nguyen continued volunteering for Correa and helped out with Obamacare town halls before moving back home.
“That’s where my interest in healthcare really began,” she said.
Nguyen landed a job next with CalOptima, O.C.’s health organization that serves low-income, disabled and senior residents, during a time when critics contended that the Board of Supervisors increasingly politicized it.
But she didn’t get involved with local electoral politics until Garden Grove faced a crossroads.
Former council candidate Rickk Montoya filed a lawsuit against the city in 2015 on the grounds that its at-large election system disenfranchised Latino voters. Garden Grove settled the suit later that year by adopting district reform.
Nguyen tried her hand on dividing the city into six distinct districts.
“I created a map and took it to someone who I knew was really good at maps,” she said. “After some changes, I took it to a lot of different community members that I had worked with previously.”
Nguyen’s map ultimately found favor with City Council which unanimously adopted its boundaries in 2016. Garden Grove’s east side, home to Buena-Clinton barrio that borders Santa Ana, comprised District 6. With little to lose, Nguyen, at 25, decided to run to represent it.
The announcement put her campaign opposite Montoya. She didn’t get the Democratic Party of Orange County’s endorsement, but prevailed in the race. Four years later, she handily won reelection against a last-minute opponent.
“It just goes to show that I may not seemingly be Latina enough for some people, but the community realizes I am Latina and I am there for them and their concerns,” Nguyen said. “I’m hoping that will translate over and I’ll be the first Latina elected to the Board of Supervisors.”
Nguyen’s platform is far from just history-making; it includes cleansing CalOptima of political influence, improving the board’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and addressing the county’s housing crisis.
Having recently recovered from COVID-19 herself, she scrambled to find a PCR test until getting a county-provided one at John Wayne Airport.
“We failed to take the pandemic seriously as quickly as we needed to,” Nguyen said. “That has resulted in this ripple effect where we’re still not fully prepared for what’s happening. As these surges come, we’re still not ready for them.”
With nine years of experience in healthcare administration, Nguyen also sees herself as a CalOptima expert, a unique skillset to bring before the board. She worked at CalOptima until 2017 and is now a senior compliance analysist on Medi-Cal policies for a private health insurance company.
CalOptima found itself embroiled in controversy following a scathing O.C. Grand Jury report in 2013. It criticized an exodus of senior managerial staff during former Supervisor Janet Nguyen’s tenure as a trustee and recommended that no county employees be allowed to serve on the board of directors.
More recently, Supervisor Andrew Do became chair of CalOptima and appointed one of his staffers to its chief of staff.
“Over the years, CalOptima’s been extremely politicized and has been used more as a carrot dangling for opportunities to get money from the health world and less about the focus of actual residents,” Nguyen said. “It’s heartbreaking. As someone who worked there and had to deal with navigating the politics, your job was in jeopardy if you angered the wrong person on the board.”
Nguyen is looking to change that, and more, if elected.
Even though she didn’t have a hand in drawing the county’s Latino-majority district, Nguyen sees her electoral experience in Garden Grove as a microcosm. District 2, she hopes, opens up more possibilities than her past 2020 supervisor bid when she earned a respectable share of the electorate but didn’t advance past the District 1 primary to face off with Do.
Since Nguyen announced, Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, a Bolivian American and fellow Democrat, has also jumped into the race. More names are expected to fill out the field as the election heats up.
Her campaign recently enjoyed a boost in the form of an endorsement from popular Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine).
Belonging to a Democratic Party that puts a rhetorical emphasis on encouraging women and people of color to run for office in O.C., Nguyen walks the walk, one precinct at a time.
“I’m just a young Vietxican who has the passion and devotion to serve her community,” she said. “My focus and desire is to help people.”
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