The two candidates running for San Jose mayor are clamoring for support from the city’s vast Vietnamese population—a longtime formidable voting bloc.
San Jose boasts the largest Vietnamese American population in the nation. With nearly 180,000 residents, the community accounts for roughly 10% of the city’s electorate. General elections in San Jose typically see 50% voter turnout, which means winning the influential Vietnamese vote could push a mayoral candidate past the finish line.
The power of the Vietnamese vote is amplified by strong turnout among the community.
“The Vietnamese community in this city historically controls 10% of the votes and shows up 80% of the time,” state Sen. Dave Cortese said at mayoral candidate Cindy Chavez’s recent meet-and-greet with the Vietnamese community.
Chavez, a Santa Clara County supervisor, and San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan are both courting Vietnamese voters in their fight to replace Mayor Sam Liccardo, who terms out this year. Some voters told San José Spotlight they’ve made up their minds, but many are still looking to be swayed.
John Hoang, a San Jose resident of nearly 50 years, is torn between the two candidates. He thinks Mahan has the credentials to be an effective leader, but sees Chavez’s dedication to the Vietnamese community over the years.
“The most important thing for me is somebody who could bring people together,” Hoang told San José Spotlight. “We have seen so much division in the last few years, and we need a leader who can unite us.”
The Vietnamese community, despite its large population, continues to struggle to build its political voice in Silicon Valley. Since Vietnamese refugees started arriving in the South Bay in 1975, San Jose has only elected five councilmembers of Vietnamese descent. There are none on the current city council.
The lack and loss of representation has led to yearlong delays in a number of community projects, and Vietnamese residents often believe city services are not inclusive and inadequate, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to community leaders, Vietnamese residents felt they’re left behind when San Jose failed to send warnings about the 2017 flood and resources in their language five years ago. History repeated itself during the early days of the pandemic, where the county did not have accessible information for Vietnamese speakers.
Mahan, a political newcomer, vowed to help elect more Vietnamese policymakers in San Jose.
“My opponent, Cindy Chavez, talks about representation until Vietnamese candidates are in the race,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “The last two times the Vietnamese community had representation on the council, Chavez and her political machine made a point of defeating them.”
Chavez, who won the June primary election handily in areas with large Vietnamese populations, said her decadeslong relationship with the Vietnamese community has helped shape her priorities.
“What is important to me is that the Vietnamese American community understands I am an elected official (who) keeps my word,” Chavez told San José Spotlight. “I want the votes of the Vietnamese American community because I believe I will represent them better than Matt, and because I’ve done it.”
Who has the advantage?
Chavez has a much bigger advantage in securing the Vietnamese vote, political analysts say. The supervisor has the name recognition after two decades in public office. Many also credit Chavez—and her former colleague Cortese—for opening the Vietnamese American Service Center last year. The center, a first of its kind in the nation, serves as a resource hub and health clinic.
“Nobody could deny (Chavez’s) work for San Jose and the Vietnamese community,” Loc Vu, director of San Jose’s Viet Museum and a community leader, told San José Spotlight. Vu has endorsed Chavez. “The service center is the proof of her commitment.”
Chavez held an event Sunday at her headquarters in Willow Glen to court Vietnamese voters and learn about their issues. She also announced endorsements from the Vietnamese media, county officials and other community leaders.
“That’s a strong signal the Vietnamese community will support (Chavez),” Hai Huynh, a business leader and president of Voice For Vietnamese American Association, told San José Spotlight. “Her experience matters.”
If she wins, Chavez vows to finish construction of San Jose’s Viet Heritage Garden and the “Thank you America” monument honoring soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War—projects that are decades in the making.
But Mahan, who positions himself as a challenger to the status quo, has also caught the attention of some Vietnamese voters who want a leader who can address crime and homelessness. Older Vietnamese voters tend to lean more conservative which could give Mahan, a moderate Democrat, a slight advantage.
“I like his plans,” Sarah Duong, a San Jose resident of 26 years, told San José Spotlight in Vietnamese. “I want a leader who would be dedicated to San Jose.”
Mahan said he also has a number of endorsements from Vietnamese leaders, such as June Tran, a community organizer and owner of Crema Coffee.
Mahan promised to host regular meetings with Vietnamese residents, increase safety for small businesses, remove challenges in building affordable housing and work with the community to raise funds for key priorities, such as the Vietnamese Heritage Garden.
While some Vietnamese leaders have endorsed their preferred candidates, many residents said they are still weighing their options.
“I haven’t been following closely on their platforms, so I can’t say who I’d vote for yet,” San Jose resident Loan-Anh Lacourse told San José Spotlight, adding she wants a mayor who could reduce homelessness, abandoned cars and crime.
Lacourse, who has two children in middle school, said local candidates need to engage with voters on social media more.
“I’m on Facebook all the time to learn about these things,” she said.
Others, like resident Hoang Lam, said he voted for Chavez in June, but might change his mind this November. Lam said he’s lost faith in the political system after years of seeing his community neglected.
“I’m waiting to see more from them,” Lam told San José Spotlight.
The general election is Nov. 8.