San Jose Vietnamese residents have representation again
San Jose Councilmember-elect Bien Doan’s supporters celebrate on election night. The former San Jose fire captain is set to take office in January, representing District 7 for the next four years. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    San Jose’s Vietnamese residents hope to see a strong advocate in a newly elected official, after lacking representation on the city council since 2020.

    District 7, with its sizable Vietnamese American population, is set to watch Councilmember-elect Bien Doan take his spot on the dais come January. Doan will be the fifth Vietnamese American councilmember in the city’s history to represent a community that makes up more than 10.6% of the city’s population.

    Doan’s victory is worthy of celebration, given the lack of Vietnamese and Asian American voices over the past four years, said Phillip Nguyen, executive director of the Vietnamese American Roundtable. Rosemary Kamei, who won the District 1 seat outright during the June primary, is also Asian American.

    “Not only were Vietnamese Americans missing from the lineup, but also Asian Americans,” Phillip Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “It is great that we have a Vietnamese American elected official in this position. I feel a deep sense of Vietnamese American pride.”

    District 7 is a melting pot of different communities of color, and the issues that impact residents, including the struggles of small businesses and increasing homelessness, directly impact the Vietnamese community, said Doan.

    “If we live in a city that is fair and equitable for everyone, I think we should have the same proper representation, especially for the Vietnamese community,” Doan told San José Spotlight.

    Representation is a crucial first step, said Madison Nguyen, the city’s first Vietnamese American councilmember and vice mayor from 2005 to 2014. For a community that still includes many immigrants and refugees working to have their political voices heard, a Vietnamese representative can signal hope, she added.

    “If I can speak Vietnamese and my elected official understands what I’m talking about, then they feel a sense of belonging,” Madison Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “Whether or not that elected official can address that concern is another topic, but at least they feel they’re being heard.”

    Keeping the momentum going is the community’s next challenge, Phillip Nguyen said. San Jose has elected Vietnamese representatives before, but some officials, including former Councilmembers Tam Nguyen and Lan Diep, have been ousted after one term.

    Contentious election cycles also deter potential candidates from running, and the spread of political misinformation is an issue not just among Vietnamese residents but in the city at large.

    The 2022 election season saw multiple examples of divisive politics, and the Vietnamese community was caught in the fray as racially-charged and alleged red-baiting comments prompted former mayoral candidate Cindy Chavez to take action via a cease-and-desist letter. Race-baiting only increases tensions among communities of color when the goal should be solidarity, Phillip Nguyen said, while red-baiting can retraumatize or even weaponize the feelings of those who have escaped violence and persecution.

    “We do want more Vietnamese American or even Asian American folks (to) feel empowered to run without also running the risk of feeling like they’re going to be red-baited or race-baited in that process,” Phillip Nguyen said. “Through this election process… we saw people, communities of color, being pitted against each other for the sake of political gain.”

    Madison Nguyen said Vietnamese representation relies on elected officials like Doan serving the community and upholding trust. San Jose’s Vietnamese policymakers have long had to navigate political and generational divides across all ethnic communities, she said, so producing results is key.

    “If you can’t deliver, then the voters are not going to elect you again… they’re going to hire someone else,” she told San José Spotlight. “(Doan) has a really good deep understanding of how the city works… I think he’s in a really good position to be a good addition to the city council, and also a good representative for the Vietnamese American community.”

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

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