San Jose fire captain looks to unseat progressive councilmember
Bien Doan, right, speaks to residents inside Grand Century Mall in District 7. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

San Jose firefighter Bien Doan says his 21 years as a firefighter taught him to never back down from a challenge. Now he’s embarking on his biggest one: knocking Councilmember Maya Esparza off her council seat.

Doan, a captain with the department, confirmed he will challenge District 7 incumbent Esparza, who is up for re-election in 2022.

Doan, 57, is active in the Vietnamese community, appearing at events for the San Jose Vietnamese Running Club, the Vietnamese Association of City Employees and Vietnamese business-related nonprofits. He and his family have lived in the district for 36 years.

His announcement comes as the Vietnamese community grapples with losing political representation despite comprising more than 10 percent of the city’s population. Esparza in 2018 beat ex-Councilmember Tam Nguyen.

“District 7 is a great district, multicultural,” Doan said. “But the equity was never there. I’ve seen the unequal services compared to other districts. I’ve seen our citizens suffer through joblessness, not being able to afford housing, our unhoused residents who need help. Our public safety has been on the decline. … I’m deeply saddened to see our community isn’t well served. I want to make a change.”

Doan sits outside a restaurant at Grand Century Mall. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Doan says he’s seen too many businesses in the district close during the pandemic. He wants to push the state to add more affordable housing across the city. According to data from the city, more affordable housing is located in lower-income districts like District 7.

He believes a public safety-first approach will bring more people to the area, and contribute to its economy.

“Businesses can’t thrive without customers, without jobs,” Doan said. “We build a beautiful place, a safe place, where police officers walk the precincts. What a great way to build trust.”

Doan also wants to reduce red tape to make it easier to open businesses and approve affordable housing projects by reducing regulations and fees.

“If we don’t have incentives for high-density housing or affordable housing, how can people afford housing?” he said. “We’ll work with the governments and the city to come up with plans far in the future.”

If Doan wins, he’ll be the third councilmember in District 7 in as many election cycles, the third Vietnamese American to hold the seat and just the fifth person of Vietnamese descent to hold a council seat. Doan’s platform appears to be more conservative and business-focused compared to Esparza’s progressive, labor-backed stances.

District 7 encompasses parts of central and East San Jose, including areas around Senter Road, Kelley Park and the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds.

Esparza and Doan have met several times. She told San José Spotlight that Doan’s job as an active firefighter might be an issue “to work through” before running for office. The two share similar priorities, including small business recovery and public safety.

“I brought the city’s first-ever Vietnamese walking beat to Little Saigon and I also got more money for BEST (a city-run gang prevention program) so that we can invest and support families and children in neighborhoods that have experienced violence,” Esparza said.

More than half of the district’s residents identify as Latino. The district also contains the Little Saigon Business District, a cultural and business hub for the estimated 180,000 residents of Vietnamese descent in the city.

Vietnamese Americans have struggled to keep their seats on the council: Despite the city’s large Vietnamese contingency, only four Vietnamese Americans have ever served on the City Council. Madison Nguyen, who also served as vice mayor, was on the council from 2005 to 2014. The next three Vietnamese Americans to win election were all defeated in their bids for a second term.

Doan speaks with residents outside Grand Century Mall. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Five seats on the City Council will be on next year’s ballot. Districts 7 and 9, which is held by Pam Foley, are the only seats with incumbents up for re-election in 2022.

For the first time in decades, the city’s labor faction holds the power on the San Jose City Council with a narrow 6-5 majority. If Esparza loses her seat, labor leaders could lose their stronghold.

“Labor will clearly go all in to defend (Esparza) if there’s a serious challenge,” said retired San Jose State political science professor Terry Christensen.

The primary election is set for June 2022.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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