Newcomer Nguyen

Drawing blood from his own arm, the father resolved to save his children from starvation and dehydration at sea. He dribbled it into their mouths, all to deliver them from a bleak promise of poverty and repression.

That's how Phu Nguyen describes his and his sister's escape from Vietnam. It was 1981, and Nguyen, only 3 at the time, had set sail with his family.

After one month at sea, the death of nine children aboard their boat, and eight months in a Hong Kong refugee camp, the Nguyens finally arrived in America. His parents had only $2 in their pockets when they came to Orange County, Nguyen says, and today they have a multi-state corporation and one of the nicest homes in Huntington Beach.

That quintessential immigrant story inspired Nguyen, now 33, to improve the lives of people in Vietnam and in America, he says. He's running as a Democrat for the California State Assembly seat representing Costa Mesa, Westminster, Garden Grove and surrounding areas.

"This is my way of giving back to this land and this community," he says.

A political newcomer, Nguyen has held leadership positions in Vietnamese American groups and has vastly expanded his family's overseas remittance business, he says.

But many of his accomplishments are from his time as a student, and he's been criticized for his lack of experience.

"He has no track record, zero background," says his Republican opponent, Allan Mansoor, the mayor of Costa Mesa.


Nguyen was president of the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns., which organizes the annual Tet Festival, the Vietnamese New Year celebration in Garden Grove. It's the largest such festival in the U.S. and has netted hundreds of thousands of dollars for community organizations.

Under his tenure, the group increased annual festival revenues from $30,000 to more than $300,000, Nguyen says, and established a grant program to aid nonprofits.

As many of the festival's beneficiaries are from Little Saigon, Nguyen is cognizant of the broader electorate and points out that some are not specifically Vietnamese, such as the Kiwanis Club and Boys and Girls Club, among others.

During a recent visit, Nguyen illustrates how easily he moves between two cultures. He orders lunch smoothly in Vietnamese at Xanh Bistro in Garden Grove, and then explains how his background has shaped his outlook.

"The Vietnamese people are extremely grateful and appreciative," he says, "and when we are given the opportunity to give back we take it."

Online profiles of Nguyen list at least 10 Vietnamese-affiliated groups in which he has had some sort of guiding role. They range from the Vietnamese American Public Affairs Committee to the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance (a representative said that he has resigned from their board).

"Nguyen's goal in life is to work towards building a truly peaceful, just, prosperous and democratic Vietnam," his University of San Diego alumni profile says. In 2005, he earned a master's degree in peace and justice studies there.

The cherubic, stout Nguyen has one of those bumper stickers on his pickup truck that spells "coexist" with a peace sign, a cross and a Star of David.

"My wife and I both have the same outlook in life," he says. "We don't live to benefit ourselves."

But in the world of politics, many people do, and critics claimed that Nguyen used this year's Tet Festival for political gain. At the time, Garden Grove Councilman Andrew Do said in news reports that Nguyen's student organization jeopardized its nonprofit status by supporting his candidacy.

Dismissing that as just politics, Nguyen says he paid for a sponsorship and politicians have advertised there in the past.

The Tet Festival's prominence in his campaign literature and the confidence with which he describes it suggest the festival is one of Nguyen's proudest projects.

His proud cultural heritage makes for an interesting contrast with Mansoor, whose mixed Scandinavian and Egyptian roots don't play much of a role in his public life. Some criticize Mansoor, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration, for not being proud enough of his ancestry. But Mansoor contends that he feels American more than anything else, given that he was born and raised here.

"This is the land of immigrants," Nguyen says over wontons and soup. "It's important that we all know our roots and what our families and ancestors had to go through to get here."


Long before he moved to his tidy home in a gated Garden Grove community, Nguyen was raised in a modest one-story house alongside a busy Westminster street.

He lived there while his parents developed their business of shipping goods back to Vietnam. At first, people would send basic items like fabrics to relatives. His mother and father called it Hoa Phat after their respective first names.

Eventually, as immigrants gained a toehold in the U.S., gifts evolved into money and the business became a lucrative remittance company.

Nguyen took over the company around 2000 and has been running it with his older sister ever since. As vice president, he has made enough to lend himself $100,000 for his campaign and to purchase two homes.

He moved from Westminster into the Garden Grove home this summer, he says, to live across the street from his in-laws: "When I get to Sacramento my wife is going to need a lot of help."

His wife is a community college math teacher and they have two boys. Nguyen says he would return to his family and the private sector in six years after he is termed out.

"To me, it's all about family," says Katrina Foley, a Costa Mesa councilwoman ideologically opposed to Mansoor, who is divorced without children. "Phu understands the needs of young people and families."


Apparently he understands the needs of Vietnamese Americans as well. Nguyen expanded Hoa Phat from 10 branches throughout the U.S. to nearly 30. The corporate office is in Westminster and outposts can be found in major Vietnamese enclaves from Orlando to San Francisco. He has 80 payroll employees.

They still ship gifts along with funds: The branches are lined with boxes and signs promoting geriatric care packages, including nutritional shakes such as Ensure.

"They're made in the U.S.A.," one teller says.

For $50, the company can also send a gift basket with M&Ms, Pringles, Sun-Maid Raisins and other treats.

In Vietnam, one of the company's 120 employees will deliver funds (in U.S. dollars) to the recipient's home. Or, people can pick up the transfers at one of four offices there.

It's a massive market: the World Bank estimates that international remittances into Vietnam totaled $6.8 billion in 2009. While estimates vary, experts say least half of those funds come from America.

The wire transfer business, incorporated in California as Saigon Central Post, solely handles the money, Nguyen says, because of banking regulations. He started an affiliated business, My Vietnam, to ship goods and to sell phone cards and phone plans.

Money transfers, he says, account for about 90% of revenue.

Nguyen has also dabbled in freight and other trade. He shipped items, such as cars and buses, from America to be sold in Vietnam. Some of his clients also have calendars and other materials printed in Vietnam and Nguyen will ship the goods to the U.S. He recently founded a third company, Saigon Xpress, to handle some of the cargo.

In the 10 years Nguyen has headed the companies he says that revenues have grown five-fold.

While his father still advises, Nguyen says that he runs the show.

"There's no way that my parents, with their limited skills in English and business, could build the business where it is today," he says.

Nguyen's detractors, some whom are fiercely anti-communist, say his company is helping the Vietnamese government by pumping money into its economy.

"Official corruption is endemic in Vietnam," writes Matthew Cunningham, a blogger for the conservative website, Red County, "and it is widely assumed government officials take a rake-off as part of allowing money transfers into their country."

Sensitive about perceptions of wire transfer companies, Nguyen offers to produce a letter signed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It show, he says, that his company is set up just like Nike or Ford to operate overseas.


Even with that letter, he's unlikely to win over some of the most ardent Republicans in the district. And, Mansoor's coming into the race with a favorable balance of 42% registered Republican voters to 33% Democrats.

But Nguyen could have an edge by winning over Vietnamese voters. Many in Little Saigon have voted Republican in the past, including Nguyen. He voted for Van Tran, the first Vietnamese American in any state legislature. Tran is now vacating the 68th Assembly seat and running for Congress, making room for Nguyen or Mansoor.

Nguyen supported Tran during his first run for Assembly in 2004 but has since "learned about the issues" and switched to the Democratic side, he says.

He campaigned for U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and one of his closest advisors is a Sanchez staffer.

"He has fresh ideas and perspectives," Sanchez says, in an e-mail.

Like many newcomers, Nguyen says he doesn't want to be a politician and has no ambition for higher office. But he also concedes that he's been interested for a long time.

Nguyen majored in political science at Cal State Fullerton, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 2002. He considered running for an Orange County supervisorial seat in 2006.

"I fancied it a little, but I never really thought I was going to do it," he says.

After a four more years, someone thought he was ready for primetime.

"When this opportunity came up," Nguyen says, "people always knew that I was an active member of the community, active in politics."

To be sure, many politicians started out in the Assembly without government credentials.

"He kind of reminds me of when I got started," says state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana).

Both men came from the private sector — Correa was an investment banker — and first ran as underdogs against Republican opponents.

"You elect us based on what we stand for and our experiences," Correa says.

Most of Nguyen's positions are common for Democrats, such as pro-green energy and for comprehensive immigration reform.

He stands for education reform and increased schools spending, he says.

One of his largest campaign contributors is from the one of the states most influential advocates, the California Teachers Assn.

But Nguyen's also pro-life, opposing abortion except in circumstances of rape or incest.

He was raised Catholic and his family was sponsored by Catholic Charities after it fled Vietnam. Nguyen still practices and free prayer booklets are stacked at Hoa Phat's teller windows.

Besides abortion, he hasn't been criticized much on specific issues.

And, Nguyen has been on a sort of offensive, indirectly challenging Mansoor on issues of ethnicity. When the Costa Mesa City Council, led by Mansoor, recently honored South Vietnamese soldiers, Nguyen showed up and surprised the mayor.

"I wanted to see how it played out," he says, giggling.

Nguyen has campaigned at mosques, temples and churches, "reaching out" to the "extremely diverse district," he says.

In Costa Mesa, where the City Council passed a resolution condemning illegal immigration, Nguyen says he senses "an aura of divisiveness and fear."

But the real dividing question will be whether the Vietnamese Americans will vote for Nguyen over Mansoor.

Like President Obama, he believes voters can transcend ethnic lines.

"They have voted for who they think will do the best job supporting their interests," Nguyen says.

Also like Obama, Nguyen's rhetoric can soar at times.

"I hope to bring the peoples' voice and real solutions to California's problems," he says as he stretches out his arm and shifts his chair, getting comfortable when talk shifts toward idealism. "A collective community working together to better the lives of all the people in the district."

Nguyen's personal e-mail address even begins with "phutopia."

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