When Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen is sworn in today, he will become the youngest person and first person of color to occupy the city’s top elected office.
It’s not just Vietnamese Americans, an immigrant community that has recently enjoyed electoral success in County politics, who are celebrating.
Democrats and local progressives are hailing Nguyen as the face of a changing Orange County: increasingly young, multi-lingual and liberal.
The 34-year-old school board trustee defeated six-term Mayor Bruce Broadwater in a drawn-out upset, winning by 15 votes despite endorsements from several top Democratic officials and Vietnamese officials for his opponent.
Amidst an uproar over the hiring of Broadwater’s son Jeremy as a firefighter and allegations of mismanagement in the fire department, Nguyen’s campaign has focused on transparency and attracting more young people to live and work in the city of over 175,000.
The fledgling mayor asked the University of California, Irvine Law School Dean and professor of constitutional law Erwin Chemerinsky, who is also a Voice of OC board member, to administer his oath of office.
“I’m hoping some of his wisdom rubs off on me,” Nguyen said.
This will be Nguyen’s first foray into city government, after three and a half years on the Board of the Garden Grove Unified School District and 8 months on the Orange County Fair Board.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family fled Vietnam, Nguyen grew up in Garden Grove where he attended Pacifica High.
While a Political Science student at UCI, he volunteered on the campaign of former state senator Joe Dunn, who is also a Voice of OC board member, and interned on Capitol Hill. He later earned a master’s degree in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Naropa University in Colorado.
Nguyen has also worked as a community organizer and as a substitute teacher in the Garden Grove Unified School District.
He talked about his cultural roots at a post-election celebration party at the Ramada Hotel in Garden Grove on Nov. 30.
“We’ve not only come a long way from refugees escaping Vietnam, but we’ve come a long way as a country, America,” Nguyen said in a speech. “This was historic … because we came together as a community and understood that the way [the city has] been run hasn’t paid attention to our needs or interests.”
Nguyen, who is fluent in three languages, also made a point of addressing the crowd in English, Vietnamese and Spanish.
“Lá phiếu của chúng ta có rất nhiều ý nghĩa và giá trị tại vì chúng ta đến tù một đất nước mà lá phiếu không có ý nghĩa,” Nguyen told the crowd. “Our votes have greater meaning and value because we come from a country where they don’t have meaning.”
“Tôi hiểu được tiếng Việt…mà không phải hiểu mà nói thôi, mà hiểu để lắng nghe,” he continued. “I understand Vietnamese…not just to speak, but with an eagerness to listen.”
In a community often perceived by outsiders as politically insular, and where anti-communism rhetoric can dominate the airwaves, Nguyen hopes his tenure will encourage a turning point in so-called ‘immigrant’ politics, less focused on overseas issues and more engaged with city hall.
His election campaign focused on transparency and called for a shift in city focus from large development projects on Harbor Boulevard to developing industries that would attract more young professionals and encourage young people to return to Garden Grove.
He also called on voters to pay attention to their city hall.
“We came from a country whose government was not so good to us, and we wanted to leave that behind – bad government. But the thing about democracy is we have to put in the effort,” Nguyen said in his speech.
Later, Nguyen said people who cast Vietnamese immigrants as conservative anti-communists are simplifying the immigrant story.
He called a campaign mailer, paid for by Broadwater’s campaign, accusing him of communist sympathies “despicable.”
“It was an attempt at manipulating voters based on an assumption of who we are and where we come from,” Nguyen said. “[An assumption] that you can easily manipulate the traumas of Vietnamese refugees for political gain. ”
He said young people are looking for opportunities to give back to their community to honor the sacrifices of their parents and previous generations.
“It’s not that we shouldn’t be anti-communist, that’s just a part of our story and who we are. But what are the reasons why we feel that way? And do our children know about that?” Nguyen said.
“Because we’ve suffered under that, we don’t want anyone else to suffer like that. I don’t want Americans to suffer under bad government. Kids have to understand that’s a part of their story and we’re going to have to hold them accountable. And that’s how we heal,” he added.
Nguyen rejected an attitude among some young Vietnamese that they must wait for an older generation to phase out before changing local politics.
“You know how some people say, just wait until the old people die out – what? No way. That’s our wealth. They’re our treasures,” Nguyen said. “There’s continuity within the stories – we’ve picked up where we’ve left off. ”
Big First Agenda
Nguyen will take his oath of office as the number of major changes take place in the city of more than 175,000.
The city is searching for a replacement for former fire chief David Barlag and city manager Matthew Fertal, who announced his resignation earlier this month.
Broadwater and longtime councilmember Dina Nguyen, who is termed out and assuming a seat on the county water board, will be leaving the city.
Although Garden Grove is a council-manager city, the mayor has long dominated city politics. It’s still to be seen whether Nguyen will take the same wide latitude with his role as Broadwater.
Meanwhile, former planning commissioner Phat Bui will be sworn in as a councilman, alongside an appointed incumbent Kris Beard, who was re-elected this November.
Nguyen says he will take “very careful and intentional” steps in the next several months.
“We are at a crossroads where we’re at an opportunity to take the city to the next level,” Nguyen said after his celebration event. “I want to strengthen whistleblower protections for city staff, review policies on hiring protocol and ethics, and do things that would reward those who are passionate.”
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org.