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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Madison Nguyen's Last Stand

Inside the embattled councilmember's recall fight

By Erin Sherbert

Madison Nguyen rolls up in a Lexus SUV and parks behind Lighthouse Café, a popular Vietnamese coffee shop off King Road. She greets a handful of volunteers, rattling off a few words in Vietnamese as she unlocks the door to the headquarters of her anti-recall campaign. It's pure coincidence that this small space next door to the coffee shop is the same spot where Nguyen hosted her 2005 victory party, the night she was elected to San Jose's City Council.

Her volunteers already know the drill. With almost no direction from Nguyen, the group moves swiftly, pushing furniture and setting up chairs, preparing to turn the grungy room, with its coffee-stained carpet and the stale smell of cigarettes, into a 24/7 operation. Later this month, Nguyen will kick off an aggressive campaign to fight this recall.

"I like it," she says glancing around the room with her hands on her hips. "I like campaigning."

Defeating a recall is tough, but Nguyen is a deft campaigner, with a reputation for working nonstop on six hours of sleep a night and many, many cups of tea. She has already called on established donors, who are happily pouring money into her campaign to help save her job. And with almost no notification, she has managed to mobilize a legion of volunteers who have lined up to help call voters and walk the neighborhoods of District 7.

Of equal importance, she also has a list of powerful politicians on her side, some of whom are publicly denouncing the recall, and others who are working to help her raise big money.

And then there are the behind-the-scenes insiders, like Melanie Jimenez, who left her policy analyst position with the mayor's office to help Nguyen beat the recall.

"Recall elections should be isolated to grave ethical issues," says Jimenez, who worked with Nguyen on public safety issues and is now serving as her campaign manager. "Madison was being a real leader. I think the recall is unwarranted."

Regardless, this campaign won't be about spreading an anti-recall message. Instead, Jimenez, 25, plans to spotlight Nguyen's accomplishments, most of which she believes have fallen in the shadows of the fiery Little Saigon debacle.

She wants voters to know Nguyen as the council rep who increased affordable housing in her district, preserved weekend library hours and followed through with one of her most ambitious campaign promises—building a community center for San Jose's Vietnamese-American community, which is expected to open in 2010.

To back these efforts, Nguyen will be spending time and money to tout her message on radio and through other media outlets, making sure to tap into the Spanish-speaking community, a huge voting block in District 7.

"Trust me, you will feel the presence of the No Recall campaign out on the streets of District 7," Jimenez says.

Golden Child

After casting her vote against naming a stretch of Story Road "Little Saigon" last November, Nguyen had to be escorted out of the doors of City Hall by the mayor's bodyguard.

The furor had rattled the council chambers, where more than 1,000 mostly Vietnamese-Americans shouted in anger after the council made its final decision to follow Nguyen's lead and vote "no" on Little Saigon. Police officers and City Hall security lined the steps of the chambers, attempting to control the chaos.

Nguyen shrugged it off, underestimating what lay ahead.

Before that vote, Nguyen, a private and reserved 33-year-old who escaped Communist Vietnam by boat when she was 4, was hardly a contentious character at City Hall, where her efforts won her the backing of both labor and the business community.

In fact, Nguyen was considered the "Golden Child" within the Vietnamese community, recalls Barry Hung Do, a longtime community activist who initiated the Little Saigon protests.

The first Vietnamese-American woman elected to political office in California, her election was historic, an affirmation of the growing political power of Vietnamese-American voters. A moderate on a politically divided body with cross-cultural appeal, Nguyen's future looked bright. Associates encouraged her to look to higher office, and a run for mayor or Congress down the line seemed to be in the cards.

Do credits Nguyen for her key role in the 2003 protests at City Hall after San Jose police shot and killed a Vietnamese woman in her kitchen. Two years later, when Nguyen was elected to the City Council, she continued advocating on behalf of the woman's family, pushing the council to award them $1.8 million. Among other things, she has also helped bring in more than 700 affordable homes, a majority of which are occupied by Vietnamese-American families, she says.

As the only Vietnamese-American on the City Council, Nguyen became the political voice for the growing voting force.

But that all changed in the weeks that followed the Little Saigon vote that made her one Silicon Valley's most controversial figures.

It all started last summer as Nguyen attempted to follow through with one of her campaign promises: to create an official Vietnamese Business District. The initial proposal would have named a stretch of Story Road "Vietnam Town." As Nguyen moved forward with her plan, Vietnamese-Americans began surfacing, calling on the council to name the retail area "Little Saigon."

For many Vietnamese-Americans, Little Saigon is a symbolic denunciation of the Communist government that they fled after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Vietnamese-Americans have created "Little Saigon" ethnic enclaves in places like Houston and Orange County.

Despite a strong push from the community for Little Saigon, Nguyen convinced a majority of her councilmembers to go with another less popular name: Saigon Business District. She called it a "compromise name" for her ethnically diverse district.

This outraged thousands of Vietnamese who felt she was ignoring the desire of her constituents. In early January, hundreds of them circled the grounds of City Hall protesting both Nguyen and the council's decision.

The protests continued every Tuesday at noon, just before the weekly council meetings, for more than eight weeks. The drama at City Hall increased when, on Feb. 16, Ly Tong, a well-known Vietnamese activist, started a hunger strike on the steps of City Hall, drawing media attention from across the nation.

The Little Saigon ordeal was turning into an international PR nightmare for San Jose. Mayor Chuck Reed seemed to have no choice—he stepped in to clean up the mess, and cut a deal with Little Saigon supporters, in particular Barry Hung Do, allowing them to hang Little Saigon banners along Story Road in exchange for putting an end to the month-long hunger strike. In March, the council held another meeting to officially rescind its vote on Saigon Business District.

"I have some regrets," Reed now says. "There were things I could have done differently and in hindsight I can see where those opportunities were and things I would have done differently."

Reed's move didn't slow the anti-Madison sentiment, which was growing legs. Her hard-core critics continued to relentlessly blast her in the news media, launching verbal insults and blaming her for letting the Little Saigon debate unnecessarily explode within the Vietnamese-American community.

Little Saigon leaders pushed forward with a malicious campaign punctuated with accusations that Nguyen is a Communist sympathizer—they still bring up the fact that she traveled to Vietnam in 1996, where she taught English through a Stanford University program. They believed that Nguyen's refusal to support the name Little Saigon suggested that she was sympathetic to the Communist regime.

"It was completely within her power to have that name instantly—she could tell the council, 'My community likes that name,' and everything would be over with," Do said. "But no, she fought it. So we felt something was wrong; people questioned her motive of why."

As the Little Saigon frenzy continued, Nguyen seemed to almost willingly take these punches from her Vietnamese community. She has remained stoic, even as the emotional debate boiled over into a vicious campaign to remove her from public office.

"People ask me all the time, 'How come you don't seemed concerned or you are not angry, or you haven't said anything that truly embodies your emotions?'" Nguyen says. "I just don't take it personally."

But sitting at Starbucks off Curtner Road recently, Nguyen's darker emotions surfaced, as she unraveled the yearlong fiasco that has led to an all-consuming effort to remove her from the City Council.

"I never thought it would get to this point," she said, quietly sipping her drink. "I feel very, very, very sad by what is happening. I wish the community can be a little more forgiving."

No Sympathy

It was a cold, early morning in January; the mood was good inside the meeting room at the McEnery Convention Center, where Mayor Chuck Reed was giving a spirited State of the City Speech addressing a crowd of up to 1,000, including Nguyen and her staff.

Outside the hall, a tense and taciturn group of Vietnamese-American protesters lined the corridors, holding up signs opposing both Nguyen and the council's November vote.

Nguyen has learned to grin and bear endless moments like these.

She recalls attending a New Year event as a guest. She was there to greet Vietnamese-American senior citizens and wish them well. But it turned sour the moment the councilmember arrived. Her presence hit a nerve among some members in the audience who started shouting at her, telling her to get out and go home.

The same thing happened a few months later when she co-hosted a youth job fair with Councilwoman Nancy Pyle. A boisterous group showed up at the event holding "Little Saigon" signs.

These days, she doesn't attend as many political events, just to avoid the drama.

"My God, we can't even go to the supermarket together anymore," Nguyen says. "You see people and they give you looks like they know who you are, but you can't really tell if they are supportive. You don't know if they are going to yell at you."

The Little Saigon issue and now the recall are tired subjects around the house where Nguyen lives with her husband, Terry Tran. They couple tries not to talk about the topic, but it's hard, when it's always on television or in the newspapers. It's especially difficult when relatives call and want to know the latest development. Her husband almost always takes the call, Nguyen says.

When she was elected to office, Nguyen explained to her husband, who she married last year, that she would be working long hours, but the couple was never prepared for this. Now, the newlyweds have put off plans to start a family, she says. They have to wait until the controversy blows over.

"In terms of living a normal life, it's just not happening," Nguyen says with resignation in her voice.

Her critics are hardly sympathetic. The way Barry Hung Do and other Little Saigon supporters see it, she had plenty of chances to change the course and give the community Little Saigon.

Even members of the City Council who initially backed Nguyen have started to turn on her. Vice Mayor Dave Cortese came out publicly to say he felt Nguyen misled the council on the Little Saigon debate.

"I think she deserves to be recalled," says Do. "If I put myself in her place it would have never reached this far."

Building the Base

It seems an ironic twist that Nguyen's career in politics can be traced back to her interest in conflict resolution. As a Ph.D. student at UC–Santa Cruz, Nguyen decided to examine San Jose's Vietnamese-American population to better understand how the group handled conflicts. At the time, she never thought she would become the center of what has been the neighborhood's biggest conflict in recent memory.

In fact, she didn't even view herself as a political creature. But her coursework in conflict resolution brought her closer to the political community. In particular, she began forming ties with Vietnamese-Americans who were getting elected to the school boards. In her quest to better understand conflict in her community, she stumbled across something more appealing and unexpected: their desire for a strong political voice in San Jose.

It inspired a campaign to register Vietnamese-Americans, who now represent 10 percent of the population in San Jose. On July 13, 2002, Nguyen went to Tully fairground and staged an event similar to MTV's "Rock the Vote," registering more than 5,000 new voters, the majority of them Vietnamese-Americans. This voter registration effort electrified the community and created what is now one of the most important voting bases in San Jose politics—candidates today must court the Vietnamese vote.

Vietnamese leaders started taking notice of Nguyen's energy and political acumen, and when a seat on the Franklin-McKinley School Board opened up, they asked her to run. To her surprise, Nguyen won the election.

Another door opened for Nguyen when San Jose Councilman Terry Gregory was forced to resign from office in 2004 after taking gifts and loans without disclosing them in filings. The Vietnamese community saw this as a first-time chance to leap into City Hall. Several local leaders asked Nguyen to run for Gregory's open seat.

Nguyen says she was apprehensive about running for City Council, but she pushed forward, winning a hard-fought battle with Linda Nguyen, a member of a politically powerful and wealthy family.

Civic-minded members of San Jose's Vietnamese community say they were proud to finally have a voice at City Hall. They looked to her to bring Vietnamese voters and community leaders into the political fold. One of her campaign promises was to help build a neighborhood center for her community. She followed through with this pledge, but it didn't exactly work in her favor.

Many Vietnamese-Americans became outraged with Nguyen over the process, saying she left them out when making plans for the community center. The following year, Nguyen followed through with another campaign pledge: to acknowledge the economic success of Vietnamese in San Jose by giving an official name to the retail area around the planned Vietnam Town shopping center.

When the news spread, many Vietnamese-Americans stepped forward, agitated that Nguyen had omitted the community from the naming process. They hammered Nguyen for not considering their input and instead moving ahead with her preferred name, Vietnamese Business District, which they considered too generic.

After several meetings and debates, Nguyen could not be convinced to go with the Little Saigon name, alienating residents like Paul Le, a District 7 resident who says he and his family have always voted for Nguyen. He now feels differently about his council rep because, he says, she ignored her constituents needlessly. Le is now the treasurer for the Committee to Recall Madison Nguyen.

"I thought Madison was someone who the community could trust," Le says. "The thing that makes me angry, and thousands of others, is she disrespects the process, the democratic way."

Resign or Recall

Last spring, Barry Hung Do delivered a letter to Nguyen asking her to resign or face a recall. Nguyen refused to step down, prodding the county's human relations office to intervene. The former director, Richard Hobbs, tried to bring the two sides together to hash out their differences and smoothen the relations, hoping to avoid a recall, but it didn't work.

By summer, many of Nguyen's opponents had organized, combing every corner of District 7 and getting the required percentage of voters to sign off on placing a recall on the ballot. Nguyen publicly brushed off their efforts. She insisted that the people who wanted her out represented a minority. At the same time, she quietly started fundraising to ward off the potential recall. She blasted the district with literature asking her constituents to resist the recall petition drive. She raked in more than $100,000, which was double what the recall committee had brought in.

It wasn't enough to stave off the challenge. A week before the petition was due, the recall committee turned over more than 5,000 signatures, almost twice the number they needed to force an election. The committee has since hired a political consultant, Andre Charles, to help spread the recall message.

"I had my doubts they would get the signatures, because I didn't think this issue was big enough to go out and actually try to recall someone," Nguyen now says. "But we will beat this. I am very confident we will beat this."

Nguyen is relying on a circle of donors and supporters for help, including the city's political leader—Mayor Reed. Reed has already raised more than $10,000 for Nguyen's campaign. And he has no plans to stop there.

"Some people are upset with my position, but I don't abandon my allies in the middle of battle," says Reed, who was heavily supported by the Vietnamese community in his mayoral campaign. "I have endorsed her and I will continue to support her."

It's been tempting to quit, Nguyen says, appearing remarkably relaxed for someone associated with igniting one of San Jose's greatest blowouts.

"Being a pioneer is never an easy task," she says. "You are the trial and error for everything that happens in that community."

By day, Nguyen is still talking District 7 issues—crime and housing problems. But by night, she's running what she promises to be an aggressive campaign to save her job.

If she is recalled March 3?

"People tell me to run for my seat again," Nguyen says chuckling. "I have such huge name recognition that if I ran again, the chances I'd win would be high."

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