Nothing about Bao Nguyen's path to political office could be described as typical. From his birth at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand, to his 2014 defeat of a 22-year incumbent to become the first Vietnamese-American mayor of a large city, Nguyen, 35, has never been one to shy from a challenge.
Nguyen, the mayor of Garden Grove, Calif. and a congressional candidate in the Golden State, tells NBC News he was "born with nothing but the opportunity of success in America." This opportunity did not come without firsthand knowledge of such challenges as marginalization, of education, of poverty — challenges many of his constituents face on a daily basis.
As he prepares to run for Congress in California's 46th district, the seat currently held by Senate hopeful Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Nguyen is intent on bringing these issues to the fore.
"Congress is supposed to be the people's house," Nguyen, who announced his bid for Congress in October, told NBC News in a phone interview. "My campaign is about empowering all people and holding the whole government accountable, making sure government is representative of the people and not special interest groups."
As mayor of Garden Grove, Nguyen has worked on increasing both transparency and voter engagement. The city has contracted with OpenGov to bring city finance records online and allow for a truly transparent budget. "I think people should be able to see how their taxes are being spent," Nguyen said, adding that this development will encourage people to engage with their government more. "At this point, people don't trust that government has their best interest in mind. I want to change that by bringing the voices of this district to the national stage. In the process of my campaign I'll be listening to a lot of folks and collecting their stories so we can serve the needs of the district."
Nguyen thinks that part of the reason he is so passionate about representing marginalized voices is that he has the background of experiencing marginalization—as an immigrant, a person of color, and as a gay man.
If elected, Nguyen would become the second openly gay person of color in Congress, joining Rep. Mark Takano of California's 41st district, who was elected in 2013.
"Bao Nguyen and I have a common purpose: to serve the communities that raised us and helped us achieve our own American Dreams," Takano said when he endorsed Nguyen last month.
Nguyen will face tough challenges from his fellow Democratic candidates—two former state senators and a current city councilor—whose campaign war chests each nearly double what Nguyen has currently raised. But Nguyen isn't new to uphill battles: last year, he won his mayoral election by 15 votes that came from mail-in ballots, mostly from college students all over the country.
When asked about his cross-cultural, cross-generational appeal, Nguyen—who is trilingual in Spanish, Vietnamese, and English—said, "I'm not afraid to learn. I'm not afraid of going into the unknown to listen to struggle and represent that, and voice an opposition to injustice. In my decisions I'm able to consider the interests of the entire city."
He emphasizes that his campaign is about empowering all people and holding the whole government accountable—especially himself.
"People's right to criticize is important, and I want people to hold me accountable," he said. "I want to fight to make sure people have a place at the table. That people's voices and stories are told, because policies should never be based on special interests and lobby groups. Policies should be based on serving the people. And as a legislator, that's what I'm going to do."