Orange County’s Vietnamese American Political Scene Comes of Age

My-Thuan Tran, Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2008

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There are now 10 Vietnamese Americans from Orange County who have been elected to school boards, city councils, the county Board of Supervisors and the state Assembly.

And this week, after the last of the absentee ballots had been counted, Westminster—a blue-collar town that recoiled when the first waves of refugees moved in 33 years ago—became the first city in the nation with a majority Vietnamese American city council.

The political muscle of Vietnamese Americans has been building for years. They vote with gusto, are increasingly running for office and, in a county with a reputation for political conservatism, have been faithfully Republican.

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Once marginalized, Vietnamese American voters are now wooed by Orange County’s white and Latino politicians alike, many of whom translate their campaign mailers and posters into Vietnamese and make a point to pose with the yellow and red striped flag of the fallen country of South Vietnam. They are fixtures at cultural events including the Vietnamese New Year’s parade, and they attend rallies in Little Saigon condemning Vietnam’s communist government, a passionate issue for those who fled Vietnam.

“I don’t believe in central Orange County you can be a successful elected official without the Vietnamese vote,” said Sen. Louis Correa (D-Santa Ana), who hired Vietnamese American staffers and even participated in a hunger strike advocating for human rights in Vietnam.

This year, 13 Vietnamese Americans competed for public office in Orange County contests that included school board and city council seats, the same number who ran for local office in 2006. Four ran in 2000.

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The growing strength of Vietnamese American voters became clear in a 2007 special election for an open county supervisor seat, when two little-known Vietnamese candidates upstaged a field of better-knowns, including a former assemblyman and candidates anointed by the county Republican and Democratic parties. Observers called the election a “political earthquake.”

This year, as Supervisor Janet Nguyen successfully ran for a full term, all of the candidates were Vietnamese.

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Vietnamese American politicians have been able to rise in central Orange County partly because the community has grown and non-Vietnamese voters have become more comfortable with Vietnamese candidates, Vo said.

Today, Vietnamese are the largest Asian ethnic group in Orange County, with about 150,000 residents. The county’s Asian American population has grown by more than two-thirds in the last few years, while whites, who once made up nearly 80% of the population, are now barely half.

“Orange County is no longer the citadel of Anglo-Saxons that the stereotype would have you believe,” Pitney said. “It is an amazingly pluralistic community, and the politics are reflecting that.”

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As Little Saigon grew, so did its political savvy. The Vietnamese now are a sizable voting bloc: Nearly 40% of Westminster’s registered voters are Vietnamese American, and Vietnamese radio talk shows and newspapers follow every move of local Vietnamese politicians. Hundreds of Vietnamese Americans attended a council meeting last year to oppose a proposed casino in Garden Grove.

Vietnamese have historically voted largely Republican, identifying with the party’s historic anti-Communist stance, Vo said, though the number of Vietnamese Democrats and voters who decline to state parties has increased.

As Vietnamese Americans have continued to rack up political successes, divisions have grown. Discord between the county’s two highest-ranking Vietnamese politicians—Tran and Nguyen—has drawn Vietnamese voters into two camps.

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[Editor’s Note: A story from last week about the Vietnamese majority on the Westminster city council can be read here.]

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