January 12, 2003
Latino-Vietnamese Coalition Produces Winning Results
By Christian Collet
Christian Collet, PhD, is principal of Pacific Opinions, an Irvine-based polling
and voter research firm, and is writing a book on the political activities of
Angeles Times) -
Not long ago, Little Saigon was more famous for anti-communist demonstrations
directed at Vietnam than for participating in conventional democratic exercises
Yet after all of the votes were counted in early December, Little Saigon had
taken a big step forward in becoming an area where its voters, not its
protesters, were the ones to be feared.
Not only did retiring Westminster Councilman Tony Lam transfer his seat to
30-year-old Planning Commissioner Andy Quach, but attorney Lan Nguyen also
scored an upset, using a strong absentee ballot campaign to come from 700 votes
behind to win a seat on the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of
Trustees by less than 100 votes. Nguyen and Quach joined Garden Grove council
member Van Tran as the only elected Vietnamese Americans in Southern California.
Quach, a two-time candidate and Republican congressional aide, was an
overwhelming winner; Nguyen, a first-timer without experience in partisan
politics, faced a more serious challenge.
The Garden Grove Unified School District extends well beyond Asian American hubs
in Westminster and Garden Grove to parts of Santa Ana, Stanton, Fountain Valley,
Cypress and Anaheim. Furthermore, the newcomer was up against two two-term
Republican incumbents presiding over a district that has won awards as one of
the best systems in the country. Nearly every factor in the race favored the
Nguyen made two decisions that helped him win -- and, in the process, turn the
Vietnamese American community into a force with which to be reckoned.
The first was a furious, six-week voter registration drive that used the popular
Vietnamese-language media as well as volunteer youth organizations. Nguyen
sought to expand his potential electorate rather than focus simply on sending
mail to high-propensity voters.
The strategy worked. A Pacific Opinions analysis of voter records indicates that
more than 3,700 Vietnamese American voters were added to county rolls between
early September and election day, with more than 2,000 in Westminster and Garden
Grove alone. Ten percent of the 33,000 Vietnamese Americans who voted countywide
in November did so for the first time. Turnout among Vietnamese Americans in the
district was 53%, higher than the countywide average.
Nguyen also extended an olive branch to local Latinos. A year ago, local Latino
and Asian American organizations presented competing plans and fought each other
for representation in the county's redistricting process. This time, they fought
on the same side. Nguyen distributed literature in Spanish and ran a tag-team
effort with Latino leaders, including Zeke Hernandez, the president of Santa
Ana's League of United Latin American Citizens and a candidate for Santa Ana
It was at Nguyen's victory party that the coalition prospects between the
county's two largest minority groups flowered. Hernandez spoke of the "great
steps" Latinos and Vietnamese were taking while Santa Ana School Board President
John Palacio added that "the Vietnamese community is a friend of the Latino
community." Both received warm applause from the estimated 250 who came to eat
cha gio (Vietnamese eggrolls) and cheer the new Vietnamese Trifecta of Tran,
Quach and Nguyen.
Should relations between the two groups develop, it would become a coalition of
consequence in several areas throughout northern and central Orange County.
Minorities could become the majority on a number of city councils and school
Latino challengers pitted against one another in Santa Ana and Anaheim might
turn to the nearly 15,000 Vietnamese American voters in those cities. A minority
candidate in the 68th Assembly District or 1st Supervisorial District (where
approximately 1 in 5 voters is Vietnamese American and 1 in 4 is Latino) could
conceivably benefit from that demographic blend. In a crowded race for either of
these seats, a lone Vietnamese American or Latino candidate would probably bring
enough ethnic votes to threaten any challenger.
Although the Vietnamese American electorate has grown 21% since 2000, some
significant challenges remain. The most important will be to avoid the
community's infamous infighting and to channel the ambitions of aspiring leaders
to different offices.
Quach's victory is instructive. Just two years earlier, he, along with two
Vietnamese American rivals, mounted a campaign for the same city council seat
that fractured the community vote; all three lost, and two white incumbents kept
But the unity that Lam and other first-generation refugees worked for over the
last quarter-century is becoming attainable as the new generation ascends.
Politics in Hanoi will not be forgotten, but expect more focus on the politics
of Orange County and, at some point, Sacramento and Washington.
When the newly energized electorate that put Tran, Quach and Nguyen in office
manifests a similar passion for a candidate of another ethnicity, perhaps
Latino, or a political party or ballot measure, it will be said without
hesitation that Little Saigon is not so little anymore.