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Photograph by Raymond R. Rodriguez Jr.

Power Clout: Rising political star Madison Nguyen's future's so bright, she's gotta wear shades.

The Visible Woman

San Jose's Madison Nguyen is the first Vietnamese-American elected to public office in Northern California. She can't be president, but she's got big plans for her community and her career.

By Allie Gottlieb

MADISON PHUONG Nguyen sat quietly taking notes while the DA spoke. City Councilmember Chuck Reed had invited Nguyen to witness the exchange between San Jose residents distraught over the July 13 police shooting of Bich Cau Thi Tran. George Kennedy, the elected DA who's ultimately in charge of whether to indict the officer who killed her, had just finished telling the roughly 25 people surrounding the conference table about the two ways he can charge someone with a crime (police charges or a grand jury indictment), when question time arrived.

"Will there be people of Vietnamese descent serving on the grand jury?" Nguyen asked.

Kennedy replied that he didn't know. Jury selection is "completely random." He proceeded to describe one jury picked to decide a case about a Mexican victim of a police shooting--a jury on which no one was Mexican. "I'd hoped for diversity, but it didn't work out that way," he said.

Obviously, juries are just one place where ethnic subgroups are underrepresented. For those of Vietnamese descent, the near absence of power in virtually every category of public service is glaring. Especially in San Jose, the city with the largest population of Vietnamese descendants outside Vietnam.

Vietnamese residents, numbering nearly 79,000 in the last census, make up 8.8 percent of San Jose's population. Less than 1 percent of the police in San Jose are Vietnamese-Americans. The 1,408-member force includes 28 Vietnamese officers, according to spokesperson Sgt. Steve Dixon. (Incidentally, Dixon sounded annoyed to still be getting calls about the shooting. "We don't have a lot of comment on that," he told my voicemail. "That happened a month ago.")

Nguyen straddles the first- and second-generation categories. She came to the United States at age 4 in 1979. Three years ago, Nguyen moved from Chicago, where she earned a master's degree in social science, to San Jose. She visited school districts, City Hall, and the county Board of Supervisors' office and noted the Vietnamese ethnic void.

"How can we have an equal voice if we remain a silent community?" she asks. So Nguyen ran for the governing board of the Franklin-McKinley School District in 2002 and won, making her the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to any position in California and the first Vietnamese-American elected to public office in San Jose or anywhere in Northern California. Out of the 85 Asian Americans elected to office in the United States, Nguyen is one of four Vietnamese-Americans in California, according to data collected by United Asian, a San Jose-based group. The other three hold office in Southern California.

College teacher and sociology Ph.D. candidate Madison Nguyen impresses and concerns people for the same reason. She breaks with a cultural mold by being politically apparent. "I have to be very humble when I speak in front of my people," she says, explaining that otherwise, in her youth and female gender, she'll seem arrogant for thinking she has something worthy to say.

Of the nine sisters and brothers in the Nguyen family, all pay attention to politics, but Madison alone plays a part in politics. The May commencement speech she delivered in May at Evergreen Valley College revealed an acute self-awareness.

"Growing up, I have always been a little more outspoken than most Asian children; therefore, I would often get labeled as a 'banana' by my Asian peers," she told the students. "They were trying to say that I'm yellow on the outside but white on the inside. Why? Because Asian women have always been stereotyped as submissive, fragile, soft-spoken and whatever clichés that make us vulnerable and dependent. Nevertheless, I have always been on the other side of that conventional spectrum."

When she became a U.S. citizen at around age 18, the woman formerly known as Phuong chose the first name Madison, after James Madison, America's fourth president. "To me it's a very sophisticated name, and I wanted to be a sophisticated person," she explains. She wears smart, sleek slacks, a striped button-down shirt and square-toed, black zip-up boots. Nguyen speaks clearly, deliberately and quickly as if she knows how important it is that she be heard.

"We're fighting for justice and equal representation," she says, referring to recent community organizing boosted by the response to the Tran shooting. "It's sad for it to take a tragedy like this for the community to come together and for the city to recognize who we are."

Nguyen, who lives in Councilmember Terry Gregory's district along with most of San Jose's poor Vietnamese people, organized a rally after Tran's death. An estimated 250 people showed up. "I felt like, someone's dead here, and they just barely wrote a paragraph about it. I just wanted the story to be a little more open, to let the public know what's going on. If that was a Hispanic woman, I would have done the same thing," she says.

Missteps by public officials have fueled the mistrust. Deputy District Attorney Karyn Sinunu was pulled off the case by DA Kennedy, who said some of her comments to the press reflected "some premature judgment of the facts."

City Councilmembers and Mayor Ron Gonzales have been noticeably silent about the incident. Chuck Reed is typically the only councilmember who responds to ethnically toned issues. Indeed, he has organized meetings to bring officials and community members together. But he defends his colleagues for not offering opinions or really saying anything at all until the grand jury finishes its work possibly next month.

Tran's family hired an attorney to sue the city for wrongful death. The lawsuit also demands that the DA make public all of the evidence in the case. But the DA responds that the family and the public can see all the evidence when he's done with it and the grand jury has made it public.

Mayor Gonzales did not return calls for comment. Spokesperson David Vossbrink said, "We really are waiting to find out what happened that day like the rest of the community."

The shooting took place on Taylor Street in Councilmember Cindy Chavez's district. Chavez and the rest of the councilmembers bothered not only Nguyen but also other political and community observers by keeping tight-lipped about the incident.

"Disappointingly, the mayor and most of the City Council were invisible on this issue," says SJSU political science professor Terry Christensen.

Vietnamese-American Community Action Team director The-Vu Nguyen, a big Madison fan who escaped South Vietnam at 13 by boat in 1979, says things are finally changing and Madison is a symbol of that. "This is the first time that we're standing up to get our fair share for the community," he says. For his part, The-Vu is helping to organize meetings with community members and officials.

Councilmember Chavez, who boasts that "Terry Gregory has an extremely close relationship with the Vietnamese community," claims credit on behalf of Gregory and herself for arranging one of these upcoming meetings with an eye on introducing Vietnamese community members to the world of public service jobs.

"It's so important for there to be hundreds of Madisons in this community, whether it's in elected office or public service," Chavez says.

Interestingly, Nguyen says she knew nothing of the meeting Chavez and Gregory are sponsoring, despite having bumped into Gregory the day before. Gregory at first agreed but later declined to discuss his response to the shooting, Nguyen's young political career and what she represents for his district.

But word of Nguyen as a rising star is spreading among political circles. Santa Clara County Supervisor Jim Beall, for instance, calls her "a real up-and-comer."

Councilmember Reed notes Nguyen's trailblazing significance. "I think they're underrepresented in most levels of government," he says about Vietnamese-Americans. "It takes a while before a community begins to generate leadership."

Nguyen fills out her résumé like someone looking to the future. For example, she co-founded, with The-Vu Nguyen, the nonprofit Vietnamese-American Center. But at this point, Nguyen won't admit to harboring political aspirations beyond the school board level.

"When I first started out, I didn't get much support from the Vietnamese community, because the concept of a female running was so new," she says. "In the Vietnamese community, people didn't really know who I was. Financially, the Vietnamese community is very new to the concept of giving back."

She offers opinions about the state of the city and the country. On the DA's professing to be open-minded and unbiased to set the tone of the Tran shooting investigation: "He's playing the 'neutral' guy without really being neutral." On the fact that she can never lead the country: "What the citizenship clause says to me is that this country and the leadership of this country are not treating everyone with the same respect. This shows me that this country is not grateful for the countless benefits that immigrants have brought forth."

She imagines herself in 10 years working as a professor at an area university after finishing up her Ph.D. at UC-Santa Cruz. She says representing the school board is the most important political position she could have because it operates on such a local level. Her agenda includes beefing up the multicultural curriculum and adding Vietnamese teachers to the staff. But the weight of progress on her shoulders isn't lost on Madison Nguyen.

"I want to use the fact that I have some clout and do something good with it. At first, a lot of people in my community asked me why I was standing up for a cause. ... 'Why are you doing this? Is it worth it?'" But she says that people in her community are now warming up to her. "To come out, be this young, run against three incumbents and win," she confidently narrates, "it really shows that they're desperately wanting someone new, some representation."

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From the August 28-September 3, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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