Madison Nguyen hopes to parlay her initiatives on better schools and safer streets into a bid to become the first Asian American mayor of one of the nation’s top 10 cities.
Nguyen is one of San Jose’s 10 city councilmen and the current vice mayor. That gives her the stature to take on likely rivals in the mayoral race, all of whom are seasoned politicos who have been in the public eye far longer than the 38-year-old Vietnam native.
Nguyen has only been a city councilman since 2005 but hasn’t been coy about her ambitions for higher office. In December of 2012 she became the first serious candidate to file the Candidate’s Intention Statement declaring her entry into the 2014 mayoral race.
Having little support from labor or business, Nguyen will have to rely heavily the area’s Vietnamese American community to fuel her campaign. Her relationship with the community was severely tested in March of 2009 when she faced a a recall campaign launched by the Vietnamese community for her opposition to naming the city’s Vietnamese commercial district “Little Saigon”. She had favored the more formal “Saigon Business District” which was ultimately rejected by the city. She survived the recall 55% to 45% — only about 1,000 votes in a low turnout election.
In December, when candidates are legally allowed to begin fundraising activities, Nguyen will learn how well or poorly her rift with the Viet community has healed.
Nguyen was only four when her family fled Vietnam in 1979 on a tiny fishing boat. They spent months moving among refugee camps in the Philippines until the family was sponsored by a Lutheran church in Scottsdale, Arizona. They managed to live on the $500 monthly stipend paid for her father’s janitorial work. The family moved to Modesto in search of work. Throughout her teen years Nguyen worked alongside the parents as a farm field laborer in the Central Valley.
She managed to attend UC Santa Cruz where she earned a BA in history, then went on to earn a masters from the University of Chicago. She returned to UC Santa Cruz to seek a PhD in in sociology but abandoned those plans in 2001 when she became interested in politics while participating in a voter registration drive in the Vietnamese community.
She ran for a seat on the Franklin-McKinley School District Board of Education and became one of the first two school board officials of Vietnamese descent in the United States. She earned a place in the community’s spotlight after she organized a protest rally against the lack of any official or media outcry about the shooting death of a Vietnamese woman by a San Jose police officer.
In September 2005 a large number of Vietnamese turned out to vote for her and rival Linda Nguyen who were among nine candidates seeking a city council seat that had opened up for the seventh district. Madison Nguyen ultimately won the runoff election against the Linda Nguyen with 62% of the vote.
Nguyen’s trial by fire began in 2008 when when she suggested naming a section of Story Road with a high concentration of Vietnamese businesses “Saigon Business District”. That angered many of the area’s retailers who had been pushing to have the district named Little Saigon, the name commonly used for the larger Vietnamese districts in Westminster and Houston. Egged on by rival Linda Nguyen, many in the Vietnamese community began denouncing Madison Nguyen as a traitor for leading the successful city council initiative to formalize the Saigon Business District name.
In March of 2008 the city council caved into intense pressure and voted to rescind the name “Saigon Business District”. But it didn’t formalize the Little Saigon name. Lingering resentment against Nguyen led to a petition drive for a recall election. The petition garnered 150% of the needed signatures and qualified for the March 3, 2009. After surviving that recall attempt, Nguyen won re-election in 2010. A year later she was nominated vice mayor by Mayor Chuck Reed. The nomination was approved unanimously by the city council.
“I’m going into this campaign, knowing that I will probably not get support form the Chamber of Commerce and South Bay Labor Council,” Nguyen said soon after declaring her candidacy last year. “What I want to do is maintain an independent voice, and not necessarily be influenced by powerful forces in the city.”
To the extent that modern American political campaigns depend heavily on costly TV commercials to promote their candidates, Nguyen’s prospects for winning will depend largely on how successfully she has put the Little Saigon fracas behind her.