Longtime Santa Clara County politico looks to make history
Betty Duong announces the launch of the Santa Clara County Office of Labor Standards Enforcement. Duong is running for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors. Photo courtesy of Betty Duong.

    Betty Duong is no stranger to being the first. Now, the longtime community advocate has her eye on being the first Vietnamese supervisor in Santa Clara County.

    Duong, 42, said she’s running for the District 2 Board of Supervisors seat and plans to make the announcement official in downtown San Jose this Sunday. Experts and supporters said Duong has a good chance and a long history of working in the Vietnamese community.

    “To be the first means to set the pace. It means to create the mold,” Duong, who is chief of staff for District 2 Supervisor Cindy Chavez, told San José Spotlight. “When you’re the first you have to demonstrate good leadership, bold leadership, inclusive leadership.”

    Duong said she’s been a part of multiple groundbreaking initiatives. She worked in the county executive office for several years where she led the Vietnamese American Service Center project, the first of its kind in the nation. Duong was special counsel for the Vietnamese American Workers’ Rights Project at Legal Aid at Work. She was the campaign manager for Measure A, an affordable housing bond.

    She also served as the public information officer for the Santa Clara County Emergency Operations Center during the COVID-19 pandemic, and helped create the county’s first language access services project. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Asian American studies from UC Berkeley and was the first in her family to obtain a law degree from UC Davis.

    Duong said her work at the county for the past decade has been deeply personal. Her family came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1979, living in downtown San Jose before moving to the East Side. Duong said growing up, she became familiar with the county’s resources as she helped her family gain access to food and housing.

    “I spent the first half of my life relying on county services,” Duong said. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life helping to build that safety net, strengthen that safety net and build up these county services.”

    She said her priorities as a supervisor would be to tackle the homelessness crisis and bolster mental health services, with a focus on prevention.

    Duong is running for the seat held by Chavez, who terms out in 2024. Chavez is possibly planning to run again for San Jose mayor in a 2024 rematch against Mayor Matt Mahan. She has yet to confirm that decision publicly. District 2 includes a large portion of San Jose that is home to more than 100,000 Vietnamese residents, making it the city with the largest population of Vietnamese residents outside of Vietnam.

    Lam Nguyen, chief of staff for San Jose District 4 Councilmember David Cohen, said he’s known Duong for years as a friend and colleague. He said she was instrumental in establishing the Vietnamese American Service Center. The community hub opened its doors in 2021 and offers bilingual resources, health services and gathering spaces.

    “Betty Duong to me is a force of nature, and an unrelenting force of change,” Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “Her dedication to her community is second to none.”

    Nguyen said Duong’s campaign signifies a rise in the Vietnamese political voice at the county level. Vietnamese representation in San Jose politics has been sparse despite the community’s power as a significant voting bloc. Representation increased last November with San Jose Councilmember Bien Doan’s victory in District 7.

    “If Betty wins, it is such a monumental moment,” Nguyen said. “Her election (would serve) as a very defining point in the growth of our community, and the representation in local government that we’ve always wanted.”

    Larry Gerston, San Jose State University professor emeritus of political science, said while other variables come into play, identity politics should not be underestimated. He said candidates who are women or people of color have historically secured support in Santa Clara County politics, pointing to elected officials like Chavez. Census data shows 49.1% of the county are women, and Asian Americans make up 40.6%.

    “While (diversity) would not be the only factor in considering candidates in elections, it is an important factor,” Gerston told San José Spotlight.

    Duong said she has the experience at all levels of the county, from operations to budgetary decisions, and she’s ready to hit the ground running.

    “I have been able to accomplish so much as a county employee, not just doing good work, but doing audacious work,” she said. “I’m ready to be in that role to create my own policy and direct my own programs.”

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

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