Identity politics in San Jose: How powerful is the Vietnamese vote?

The power of the Vietnamese vote has stood out for decades in San Jose politics as voters have rushed to the polls in droves to support their candidates — usually those with similar last names.

But as the population continues to grow and new generations enter the mix, the question of whether identity politics still exists comes into play. San Jose is home to more Vietnamese residents than any other city outside Vietnam. But how are candidates navigating the changing community, a traditionally conservative generation living in Silicon Valley’s liberal enclave? And how will the Vietnamese vote impact future elections?

San Jose’s District 4, with a 19.8% Vietnamese voter population, is a battleground for an upcoming council race in March 2020. The closely-watched election is a test for the power of the Vietnamese vote, pitting two Vietnamese men against one another, along with a caucasian candidate. Incumbent Lan Diep is facing Huy Tran, an employment attorney, and David Cohen, a Berryessa School Board member, in his re-election bid. 

Diep, who until recently was the only Republican councilmember, is now running under “No Party Preference,” according to a Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters spokesperson. Both Tran and Cohen are Democrats.

Tran sees himself appealing to all Vietnamese voters, young and old. Tran’s parents were boat refugees fleeing communism, and he was born soon after they arrived in the U.S.

Huy Tran is seen speaking at the Filipino Chamber of Commerce in this file photo. Photo courtesy of Huy Tran.

“A lot of elders want to see the younger generation step up, but they don’t want to be forgotten,” Tran said. “For me, I think I definitely understand the trauma that is carried by the elders because I can see it in my own family. But as I grew up and am from here, I see more of what we need to do as a community to survive. My focus is primarily what’s happening here in the States.”

Tran’s flash-button issue is affordable housing. As a member of the city’s Housing Commission, he advocated for a fee on businesses, pushing for major tech companies like Google to contribute to affordable housing programs.

Tran has encountered the housing crisis firsthand. He once lived in a car, a motel, and was abruptly evicted in 2016 when his landlord wanted to reclaim the house for her family.

“For me, that experience does color my view on how we address homelessness,” Tran said.

Cohen, the only non-Vietnamese candidate in the race, recognizes the strong Asian influence in the district, but he’s hoping identity politics “won’t be a problem.” As a Berryessa resident for more than 20 years, Cohen believes his differentiating factor is his “depth of knowledge and experience.”

David Cohen is seen speaking with District 4 voters in this file photo. Photo courtesy of David Cohen.

“Historically, there’s been a thinking in San Jose that every district kind of belongs to one group or another,” Cohen said. “But San Jose really needs elected officials that are able to represent every voice in the community.”

Cohen’s platform includes supporting sustainable development and better public transit. He too is an advocate for affordable housing.

“One of the biggest issues in education in our county is declining enrollment,” Cohen said. “That’s because families are moving away because they can’t afford to raise a family in the county. And that’s hurting our schools, it’s hurting our communities.”

Diep declined an interview.

The power of the Vietnamese vote

Controversy broke out in 2016 when Diep unseated an incumbent Vietnamese councilmember — Manh Nguyen — by a mere 28 votes. The year prior, Diep finished third in a special election. Stunningly, he was just 13 votes shy of squeezing Nguyen out of a runoff that year.

According to a local political expert, the Vietnamese community has historically voted as a bloc, giving the community “greater clout” in San Jose elections. And that stronghold could make a difference in the hotly-contested District 4 council race in 2020.

“It’s universal: you like to vote for one of your own if you can,” said Terry Christensen, San Jose State University professor emeritus. “But with multiple candidates, more than one Vietnamese, votes are inevitably going to be split.”

In the tight 2016 race, Christensen said, Nguyen and Diep had to gain support from other ethnic groups in District 4, including the sizable Filipino and Chinese populations. Voting blocs comprised of immigrant voters often break down with new generations and changes in voting behavior, he added, so the candidates can’t rely solely on the Vietnamese vote.

“The Vietnamese vote had to be split between the two of them (in 2016),” Christensen continued. “So both candidates had to try to reach beyond that Vietnamese base.”

The district is comprised of 61 percent Asian residents, according to the 2010 Census.

A breakdown of numbers of voters by Ethnicity in District 4. Courtesy of politicaldatainc.

Whether they admit it or not, Tran, Diep and Cohen will likely court Vietnamese voters and apply the same strategies next year, Christensen said. “The one prediction I’m willing to make is that there’s likely to be a runoff because both Cohen and Tran are strong contenders,” he added.

San Jose State political science professor Garrick Percival added that the Vietnamese vote becomes especially important in tight, local races.

“At the district level, often what you’re seeing, especially in primary elections, is participation rates are fairly low so you have a relatively small number of votes that can tip the outcome of an election,” he said. “And that’s where mobilization and outreach efforts to the Vietnamese community has proven to be really important.”

History made in San Jose

More than a decade ago, Vietnamese voters made history in San Jose when they elected Madison Nguyen as San Jose’s first Vietnamese-American city councilmember. She went on to become the city’s first Vietnamese-American vice mayor in 2011.

The trailblazer told San José Spotlight she ran for office because she saw the lack of Vietnamese political representation as a PhD candidate.

“The Vietnamese-American community here had contributed to the city significantly in so many different ways — socially, educationally, economically — but politically, they didn’t really have a standing… no one had ever got elected to public office before,” she said in a recent interview.

But in the 2005 District 7 special election, both candidates were Vietnamese — Linda Nguyen and Madison Nguyen. It all boiled down to background and platform.

“I grew up on a farm, from a very poor family,” Nguyen said. “We relied on public subsidies, affordable housing, whereas (Linda) came from a very wealthy family… District 7 is one of the poorest districts in San Jose. I think a lot of voters could relate to my background and my upbringing.”

Nguyen won by a landslide with 62.6% of the vote and said identity politics “absolutely” played a role in her win.

“(Identity politics) gives people motivation as to why they should get involved,” Nguyen said. “At the end of the day, especially for recent immigrant groups, what people recognize is that, ‘I like to vote for someone who speaks my language, looks like me, understands my hardships, barriers, challenges, and hopefully, he or she will represent my values.’”

As for concerns that once elected, Vietnamese lawmakers will favor their group’s needs over others, Nguyen says that wasn’t true — at not least for her.

“I believe it’s so critical to have support from your base, the community in which you grew up in, the community that you want to represent,” Nguyen added. “At the same time, once you become an elected official, you need to represent everyone in the district that elected you. But we shouldn’t forgo the importance of ethnic politics.”

The next generation of Vietnamese voters

Despite the traditional Vietnamese stronghold in San Jose, some longtime residents say the next generation of Vietnamese voters — who are actively becoming more progressive — need to step up in new ways to make their voices heard.

Allen Nguyen, 63, a retired engineer, said he only votes in presidential elections. He did, however, vote for former District 4 Councilmember Manh Nguyen, who was a personal friend.

“Often, people will like Vietnamese (candidates) more,” said Nguyen, who camped out on a recent Sunday afternoon to watch a match at the Cataldi Park tennis courts. “Vietnamese (politicians) will work for the Vietnamese (community) and fight for the rights of the community.”

Nguyen said younger generations need to step up. Many of them have studied and lived in America, he added, so they’re more likely to understand San Jose’s political landscape.

“There are many Vietnamese people in the Bay Area who are knowledgeable enough and qualified enough,” Nguyen said.

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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