Election creates void on San Jose City Council for Vietnamese community
Vietnamese residents receive information during a Tết event ahead of last year's census count. Photo courtesy of Census 2020 San Jose Counts.

From the sensory delights of Little Saigon to colorful celebrations at Lion Square, the influence of the Vietnamese community is seeped in San Jose — except on the City Council.

Following November’s election, San Jose — where more than 1 in 10 residents is Vietnamese — no longer has a councilmember representing the community, leaving leaders with mixed feelings. Some see it as a loss while others say they are waiting for a strong candidate to step up.

Lan Diep, the council’s most recent Vietnamese leader, was unseated by David Cohen this past election. Manh Nguyen, another former Vietnamese councilmember who was ousted by Diep, called his departure a “big loss” for a city that has the largest Vietnamese population — more than 100,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — outside of Vietnam.

Nguyen said local government should include Vietnamese representatives who will combat inequality — especially among the elderly and new immigrants.

“It would be better for the whole city if (the City Council) had someone from the community to extend the Vietnamese leadership,” Nguyen said.

But Frank Nguyen, a business owner, said the city hasn’t found the right candidate for the job.

“Obviously (Vietnamese) representation is important and would be great to have on the City Council with the right candidate,” Frank Nguyen said. “That just hasn’t happened yet, but I am thankful that there is some representation within staffers at councilmembers’ offices.”

Language barriers

Frank Nguyen applied for dozens of grants to keep his cafe, Academic Coffee, afloat during the pandemic. Even as a fluent English speaker with a college degree, he struggled to complete the time-consuming applications, which he said required hours of reading.

He said he can’t imagine how difficult navigating resources must be for first-generation Vietnamese business owners who may not have access to resources in their native tongue. As long as the current leadership is looking out for Asian residents, Frank Nguyen said there doesn’t necessarily need to be a Vietnamese leader on council.

He said many non-Vietnamese lawmakers, including former councilmember and now California Assemblymember Ash Kalra, have been strong and effective advocates for the Vietnamese community.

“I remember when Ash Kalra was a councilmember here and he went to like every single Vietnamese American event. It was insane,” Frank Nguyen said. “I would follow his social media, I would see him represent (the community) everywhere and he always supported all the causes.”

City staffers try to fill gaps

David Tran, a Vietnamese-speaking policy director for District 3, said the council office gets a number of calls from Vietnamese residents looking for business and housing resources. Many are worried they will be displaced during the pandemic. Tran said and it is up to him and his colleague Mindy Nguyen to communicate their concerns to Councilmember Raul Peralez.

“Would it be nice to have someone of Vietnamese descent on the council? Absolutely,” Tran said. “But the work doesn’t stop just because someone of Vietnamese descent isn’t on the council.”

Language and cultural barriers make it difficult for leaders to know what the community needs, Tran said. Vietnamese staff can help create policy that is privy to cultural values such as family, education for children and business-ownership.

Huy Tran, a board member at the San Jose-based community group Vietnamese American Roundtable, said local leaders need to be cognizant of how cultural celebrations such as February’s Lunar New Year may impact the COVID-19 mitigation effort. To celebrate the new year, families traditionally gather for meals and often deliver food and gifts over the course of several nights to strengthen bonds.

In the same way many families couldn’t ignore Thanksgiving and Christmas, Huy Tran said many Vietnamese residents will struggle to avoid Lunar New Year traditions. According to Santa Clara County data, rates of COVID-19 cases among Vietnamese and Filipino residents are rising faster than other Asian subgroups.

“We’re still dealing with a surge, so how do we deal with that in a way that allows the cultural practices to be engaged in in a way that is safe, but also without forcing people to feel like they are being prohibited from engaging in the most important holiday?” Huy Tran said.

Vietnamese leadership

Despite calls for representation, Vietnamese leaders struggle to maintain seats on the City Council. The first Vietnamese councilmember, Madison Nguyen, was the only Vietnamese councilmember to serve two terms from 2005 to 2014. Tam Nguyen served one term from 2015 to 2019. Manh Nguyen served one year after a special election from 2015 to 2016. Diep served from 2017 to December 2020.

Former San Jose Councilmember Lan Diep was unseated in November. File photo.

“The history of Vietnamese representation in San Jose is very short,” said Huy Tran. “So the candidates who have come out and run and won have shown that the community wants representation and does have the strength to get people elected.”

Tran, who ran against Diep in the March 2020 primary, said Vietnamese voters are still finding their voice.

In a previous San José Spotlight report on the power of the Vietnamese vote, political expert Terry Christensen said San Jose’s Vietnamese residents typically voted as a bloc but diverged in 2016 when Diep unseated Manh Nguyen by a mere 28 votes.

As the Vietnamese population grows, more qualified candidates will run for office, Manh Nguyen said. But the community needs to unify and network with other minority groups to support them, he added.

Huy Tran said appointing Vietnamese leaders to influential commissions, such as the Charter Review Commission — which will decide key issues including whether San Jose gets a ‘strong mayor’ system — will be critical for getting more representation across the board, Tran said.

Christina Johnson, a Vietnamese American Roundtable board member, was recently appointed to the commission. Mayor Sam Liccardo also appointed Diep to serve on the commission after Diep lost reelection.

“Representation is important, for a couple of reasons: one is that it breaks the norm, to show and establish that people from different communities, different backgrounds, are qualified to serve in these decision-making roles,” Huy Tran said. “It also ensures that these communities are understood and served in times of distress that we are in now, and that the needs are not forgotten.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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