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In 2018, Vietnamese Americans found new political prominence

At least two dozen Vietnamese Americans ran for local office in California this year, earning victories state assembly, city councils, and school boards.
Participants carry the former South Vietnam flag during the Tet parade in the Little Saigon area of Westminster, California on Feb. 4, 2017.
Participants carry the former South Vietnam flag during the Tet parade in the Little Saigon area of Westminster, California on Feb. 4, 2017.Nick Ut / AP file

IRVINE, Calif. — Asian Americans played a key role in Democrats’ “blue wave” in this year’s midterm elections, with 77 percent of Asians nationwide voting for Democratic candidates, according to NBC News exit polling, compared to 23 percent who voted for Republicans.

In Orange County, California, Asian-American voters are thought to have helped flip three congressional seats so that the previous Republican stronghold is now entirely represented by Democrats. And Vietnamese Americans — who have historically voted Republican by wide margins — may have contributed to this shift, according to experts.

“The common assumptions about the Vietnamese community aren’t actually true anymore,” said Tracy La, executive director of the progressive group VietRISE.

While data showing how Vietnamese Americans in Orange County voted in 2018 is not available, there are some clues, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data, a program that conducts data and policy research on Asian Americans.

A low turnout election, Ramakrishnan said, would have suggested that mostly older Vietnamese Americans went to the polls. But in November, Orange County voter turnout reached 71 percent, the county’s highest midterm rate since 1970, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters. This seems to indicate that a high number of younger Vietnamese Americans — who tend to lean Democrat — cast ballots, Ramakirshnan said.

“Chances are that Democrats did a good job of making the Vietnamese American vote more competitive than it was certainly in 2014 in Orange County,” he said.

This was one of the first midterm elections that the Democratic National Committee invested heavily in the Asian Americans, said John Santos, western regional press secretary and director of API media for the DNC. He said the DNC registered Asian Americans to vote, ran in-language print ads and put Asian-American organizers on the ground in competitive congressional districts, including in Orange County.

Based on the results, Santos said these efforts “paid off.”

Image: Supporters of Democratic candidate Harley Rouda celebrate as they watch the returns on election night in Newport Beach, California, on Nov. 6, 2018.
Supporters of Democratic candidate Harley Rouda celebrate as they watch the returns on election night in Newport Beach, California, on Nov. 6, 2018.Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images file

In California’s 48th congressional district, for instance, where Democrat Harley Rouda beat 15-term Republican incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Vietnamese residents make up about 10 percent of the population, according to 2017 Census data estimates.

A loss by one of Orange County’s most high profile Vietnamese politicians was also telling, La said of Republican Janet Nguyen, who lost her re-election bid for the California state senate in a district that includes Little Saigon.

“Folks assume that Vietnamese would no matter what turn out for Vietnamese people, and we found that’s not the case anymore,” she said. “People are changing to be more focused on issues opposed to simply identity representation.” Housing, healthcare and immigration are some of the top concerns among Vietnamese voters, she said.

Janet Nguyen
State Senator Janet Nguyen announces a proposed constitutional amendment to block publicly funded universities from banning the American flag at a news conference in Sacramento, California on March 9, 2015.Rich Pedroncelli / AP file

In addition to Nguyen, at least 23 other Vietnamese Americans ran for local office this year, earning victories in California’s state assembly, city councils, school boards and utility districts. Many of them even ran against each other. Of the 13 people who ran for city council in Westminster, a city in Orange County’s Little Saigon enclave, for instance, six were Vietnamese.

Tyler Diep, a 35-year-old Republican newly elected to California’s state assembly, said that having so many Vietnamese candidates can be attributed to the first generation who ran for office, registered voters, mentored and inspired second and third generations, making it easier for younger Vietnamese Americans like him to seek office.

“People are more empowered to run,” he said. “Now, running for city council in Westminster, Garden Grove or Fountain Valley is seen as such a normal thing to do.”

In addition to the growing number, the Vietnamese community is also fielding a more diverse set of candidates in terms of age, gender and political experience, said Linda Trinh Vo, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Thu-Ha Nguyen, a 43-year-old Democrat who won her second term on Garden Grove’s city council, said Donald Trump and his immigration policies prompted many political newcomers like herself to run this year.

“We feel that any of us can run for office and can do better,” she said. “We feel that it’s not about whether you have political savvy, but it’s about your passion, it’s about what you believe in, it’s about what you can do for people and what you stand for.”

But the Democrats shouldn’t take the Vietnamese vote for granted, said Ramakrishnan.

“The Republican Party, to its credit in Orange County, has encouraged more Vietnamese Americans to run for office,” he said. “The big question now will be with the Democratic Party. Are Democrats going to try to build a bench of local candidates to equal what the Republicans have done?”

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