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Silicon Valley's Vietnamese community has been growing in size and influence. If front-runner Madison Nguyen takes the District 7 race, they'll have the first councilmember who speaks their language.

By William Dean Hinton

HOW SWEET is it to be Madison Nguyen these days?

Well, here's a typical scene: She's canvassing along McLaughlin Road last week and at her first stop an Asian man wearing a baseball hat and a shirt with a stain answers the door. Turns out he's Vietnamese, which makes it easy for Nguyen to converse since she's fluent in the language. They talk briefly, then Nguyen turns away triumphantly. Turns out the man voted for Nguyen when she ran for the Franklin McKinley School Board two years ago.

At the second house, a mustachioed fellow wearing a black fedora sticks his head out of the door, leering broadly at the 30-year-old Nguyen, whose pixieish face is augmented by a single barrette she uses to pin her long hair to the back of her head.

"How old are you?" the man asks, charmed. He introduces himself—his name is Carlos—but in spite of his infatuation, he has bad news for Nguyen. He's the precinct captain for one of her seven rivals for the vacant District 7 City Council seat.

Even so, he's complimentary. "You'd be a very good city councilwoman," he tells her.

Whether she'd be good is, of course, still up to debate. But whether we'll soon find out is looking more and more likely. Nguyen is considered the front-runner at the moment because of the eight candidates in the race, she's the only one to have won an election. If Nguyen even comes close to the 5,000 votes she received in the Franklin McKinley race, she should at least make the runoff race in September.

Which would be historic, since Nguyen would be the first-ever Vietnamese-American elected to a city council in the Bay Area. That may be a shock, considering the size and visibility of the Vietnamese community in this area, but it only emphasizes how such a win would take the power and influence of this heavily immigrant demographic to the next level.

Besides Madison's school board victory in 2002, another Vietnamese-American, Lan Nguyen, was elected last year to the East Side Union High School District board of trustees. In 1997, Thang Nguyen Barrett was appointed to the Santa Clara County Municipal Court, becoming the first Vietnamese-American Superior Court judge in the United States. Even outside of this area, examples of Vietnamese-Americans in office or appointed to significant posts are few and far between, such as Nguyen Minh Chau, who served four terms on the council of Garrett Park, Md., but lost a 2002 bid for state office.

Turnout for the June 7 primary is expected to be light, especially since District 7 voters—with a disproportionate number of immigrants, renters, children and single mothers—aren't known as a politically active group. One analyst estimated that as few as 1,600 votes could get any of the candidates into the runoff.

Most recently, the seat in question has been held by two Japanese-Mexican-Americans and two African Americans. But of 32,000 registered voters in the district, a third are Asian American, which makes it obvious why an Asian American candidate such as Nguyen brings such potential—and credibility—to the race.

Evidence of her popularity was on display in mid-February when 240 people, a capacity crowd, gathered at a south Monterey Road restaurant to kick off her campaign. The only spoken words recognizable to English speakers that entire afternoon were "Madison Nguyen" and "San Jose."

Nguyen worked the room with four photographers in tow. Even some of the journalists in the room pulled on Madison Nguyen T-shirts, which were going for $8. The Nguyen campaign says the fundraiser netted $15,000, most of which has already been spent.

The Two Nguyens

One of the problems Nguyen faces, however, is that she's not the only Nguyen in the race. Another Vietnamese woman, Linda Nguyen, is also running. Two years younger than Madison, Linda Nguyen is the only District 7 candidate born in San Jose. She is perhaps best known as the director of the annual Vietnamese Parade. Madison Nguyen is so concerned about Linda Nguyen taking votes from her that she's emphasized the "Madison" half of her name in large letters in all campaign literature, including signs. Two years ago, her campaign material emphasized "Nguyen."

Linda Nguyen doesn't concede much territory to Madison for becoming one of the first female Vietnamese elected officials. Asked if she gives Madison Nguyen credit for paving the way for her own candidacy, Linda Nguyen says, "A lot of people paved the way. I think it's great that there's more than one Vietnamese candidate in the race. I think it shows how far our community has come. I'm waiting for the day when people don't ask what I think of Vietnamese candidates in the race. I don't think it should matter."

But this year, it does. The secretary of state's office held a lottery March 17 to determine which of the Nguyens—and the other six candidates—will go first on the District 7 ballot. San Jose State political scientist Terry Christensen estimates first place on the ballot could mean a percentage point or two difference in votes.

Who won? Linda Nguyen. Also possibly stealing some edge was Rudy Rodriguez, a State Farm community affairs specialist, whose name will appear at the bottom of the ballot—a placement also believed to hold an advantage.

The Gonzales Factor

Some pundits are bucking predictions about Madison Nguyen and naming Beth Gonzales as the early frontrunner. Gonzales, the only Latino in the race, has the endorsement of former Mayor Susan Hammer and is rumored to have the inside track on the endorsement of the South Bay Labor Council, an umbrella political organization controlled by many of the valley's unions.

At the first door Gonzales knocks on last Friday, the issue of Terry Gregory, the man who left this District 7 seat vacant when he resigned in January amid a district attorney investigation of low-level graft, comes up. A gray-haired man wearing a flannel shirt and khaki pants answers, and when Gonzales, a 54-year-old mother of two, asks the man for his vote, he isn't so sure.

"I don't know you," he says. "I hope you're better than the last guy. I didn't trust him from the beginning. You've heard of a kingpin? He was a kingpin."

It's easy to see why jumping on the anti-Gregory bandwagon will be a favorite pastime of these candidates between now and June, some 90 days away.

Gonzales, who is Irish Catholic, not Latina, makes her case by repeatedly pointing out to potential voters she's a schoolteacher at Oak Grove High School, which seems to connect immediately with many of them. But Gonzales is capable of reaching out to the Vietnamese community that the Nguyens would like to think they have a lock on.

Campaigning adjacent to the Los Lagos golf course, Gonzales stoops to speak to a young Vietnamese boy, who has translated a discussion between Gonzales and the boy's grandmother. She asks him if he goes to Stonegate School, about half a mile up the road. No, the boy says, he goes to Meadows, several miles away. The grandmother is clearly pleased with the exchange, permitting Gonzales to stick a campaign sign in her yard.

Splitting the Community?

The conventional wisdom is that the two Nguyens will split the Asian vote, leaving Beth Gonzales and possibly Ed Voss to battle it out in the runoff election. Several things could disrupt that prediction. Two candidates who didn't make the primary, Buu Thai and Bob Dhillon, are appealing a Registrar of Voters decision to disqualify some of the voter signatures needed for filing requirements. Both Thai and Dhillon had hired pro-labor campaign consultants, which might make them attractive to the Labor Council if they are reinstated. Dhillon especially could be formidable because he's proven to be able to raise money in a previous city election.

Or the Labor Council could choose Madison Nguyen, who spent part of her childhood picking cherries and apricots in Modesto. She points to the blue-collar neighborhoods in District 7 as she travels past them in a car.

"All my life I've lived like this," she says.

It's been a good ride so far, but good enough to send her to City Hall's top floor? That remains to be seen.

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From the March 23-29, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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