Portrait of two Vietnamese women.
Betty Duong (left) and Madison Nguyen are considered frontrunners in the March primary election for the District 2 seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

Little Saigon may be on the precipice of electing its first-ever Vietnamese American to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and a potential key voice in decisions on homelessness, mental health services and law enforcement spending.

The two candidates seen as frontrunners in the race for the District 2 seat are Vietnamese American women: Betty Duong, chief of staff for D2 Supervisor Cindy Chavez, and Madison Nguyen, who was the first Vietnamese American member and vice mayor on the San Jose City Council.

The other candidates are Corina Herrera-Loera, a trustee with the Alum Rock Union School District, Jennifer Celaya, a Native American founder of the nonprofit New Beginnings, and Nelson McElmurry, a practicing attorney.

“The hope that always comes with a race like this is that we are able to elect representatives who elevate our voice and can project an image of a community that has come into political maturity,” Huy Tran, a San Jose resident and community leader, told San José Spotlight. Tran ran for city council in 2020.

For years, Little Saigon has struggled to find its political voice despite San Jose boasting the largest city population of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. Tran said other than Nguyen, who served on the city council from 2005 through 2014, there have been no other Vietnamese Americans who served two terms in San Jose.

Political observers in Little Saigon are questioning whether the board of supervisors race, in a district that spans East San Jose and parts of the downtown, will further fuel the community’s divide with two Vietnamese Americans in the race. The split has been felt through intergenerational differences and language barriers between older conservative and younger liberal progressive Vietnamese residents.

Nguyen is seen as pro-business and Duong as pro-labor. This may split the Vietnamese vote and it will be interesting to see how it plays out, Tam Nguyen told San José Spotlight. Tam Nguyen is a one-term former councilmember who lost his bid for reelection to Maya Esparza in 2018.

Yet at a recent D2 candidate forum on the east side, neither Duong nor Madison Nguyen made any mention of this historic occasion.

After the forum, however, both candidates told San José Spotlight the occasion wasn’t lost on them, nor was the responsibility of what they both described as “being the first.”

“You can’t just be good,” Duong told San José Spotlight. “Being the first Vietnamese American supervisor in combination with serving the highest need area in the county … you have to be stellar, you have to leave everything on the mat. That’s what this district deserves and the mold we need to create for subsequent supervisors who take this place.”

Madison Nguyen, who has the opportunity to be the first Vietnamese American elected to two different governing bodies in Silicon Valley, said she has the experience that is needed right now, especially when there are so many community problems.

“I hope residents look toward someone who has that experience to be able to do the work on day one, and not have to go through a learning curve,” she told San José Spotlight.

Little Saigon’s political climate

Even when Madison Nguyen first ran for city council in the 2000s, “I can’t tell you the community was united,” Tran said. “One of the things that has persisted has always been the generation gap.”

Tam Nguyen added the D2 race can’t avoid Little Saigon’s at times tumultuous political climate. He recalled the firestorm of controversy around the San Jose City Council vote in the late 2000s to name the one-mile stretch of Vietnamese businesses along Story Road the Saigon Business District instead of the name favored by many in the community, Little Saigon.

Madison Nguyen favored the name Saigon Business District, which resulted in a reversal of support for her by many in the community, even an unsuccessful recall in 2009.

“It left a bitter taste in the community’s mouth. It’s still there,” Tam Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “But I think time flies and people can forget, so she’s a very familiar name and face, and I think she will have a good advantage coming in.”

Madison Nguyen said Little Saigon is an active community, politically.

“Back in 2005, when I ran for city council for the first time, there were like eight candidates with a write-in and the top two vote getters were Vietnamese Americans, me and Linda Nguyen,” she said. “I’m really excited about the possibility that the community will come together and actually vote for a Vietnamese American woman — we need to have a voice and representation.”

Duong is a newcomer to running for office, but not to county government.

Where Tam Nguyen describes Duong as having less community exposure, other Little Saigon observers say she has already made her mark, helping to conceive the Vietnamese American Service Center, a first of its kind in the country. Duong was also the campaign manager for Measure A, a $950 million affordable housing bond, approved by voters in 2016.

“I know this is bigger than me .. this is bigger than myself. There’s no room for personal feelings,” Duong said. “I got yelled at, I’ve been spat on, things have been thrown at me, I’ve been attacked and I still embrace them with love because I know those are my county clients and my residents and my job is to help them.”

Lan Diep, a former San Jose councilmember who lost reelection in 2020 to David Cohen, said Duong has served the community and gained prominence under the tutelage of D2 Supervisor Chavez.

“Should Betty win, it is in a way an extension of Cindy Chavez’s term,” Diep told San José Spotlight.

Lack of support

Another thing that’s persisted has been the community’s unpredictability.

Tran recalled Madison Nguyen’s candidacy for state Assembly in 2016, when many Vietnamese residents actually rallied behind the current Assemblymember, Ash Kalra, rather than Madison Nguyen.

“Ash — he is 100% progressive — but the people who supported Ash were also supporting Trump … it was just a wild juxtaposition to see,”  Tran said.

Tran said the candidates can’t just rely on Vietnamese voters this year.

“They have to build coalitions and relationships and trust with everyone who lives within their district.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected]m or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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