Learning from Janet Nguyen’s Close Victory

From The Independent Monitor (April 2007)

The Vietnamese American community in Orange County flexed its muscles and demonstrated its political clout by electing Janet Nguyen in an unprecedented race for the a County Supervisor seat in the first district that includes Santa Ana, Westminister, and Garden Grove.

It did not matter that the GOP- backed Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante was a strong candidate nor that Tom Umberg, the most recognizable name in the race, was endorsed by the Democratic Party of Orange County in addition to the support of Labor Unions, and Teacher’s and Sherrif’s Associations.

Janet Nguyen, 30, is the first Asian American and youngest to serve on the OC Board of Supervisors.

The Democrats were surprisingly organized after hiring three full-time staffers, in addition to many part-timers to work on this campaign, as well as future campaigns. The DPOC endorsed a strong candidate who was well-known in the district as a former assemblyman. However, despite the organized effort, Umberg’s high profile supporters did not matter to most voters, who were of Vietnamese descent in an district that includes “Little Saigon”.

Almost fifty percent of the vote went to the two Vietnamese candidates, Trung Nguyen and Janet Nguyen. At election night, the former was ahead by only seven votes. The recount resulted in Janet’s victory by that very same margin of votes. The Registrar of Voters certified Janet’s victory almost three weeks after election night.

The other candidates in the race were: Benny Diaz, Larry Phan, Brett Franklin, Kermit Marsh, Mark Rosen, and Lupe Moreno.

A number of the volunteers who worked on Tom Umberg’s campaign were Arab Americans. Many in the Arab American community feel the need to follow the footsteps of the Vietnamese community, which can not be ignored anymore in Orange County as a strong voting bloc.

“This is a lesson that we, as Arab Americans, should learn,” said Khaled Ahmad, an organizer with the Democratic Party of Orange County. “The Vietnamese community made its voice heard by voting in huge numbers for their candidates. Our community should be more organized, register to vote, and participate in local elections by voting, encouraging Arab Americans to run for office, and learn the art of campaigning,” Ahmad continued.

There are no figures available on Arab American voter turnout. However, according to the Arab American Institute, strong Get Out The Vote efforts by Arab Americans throughout the nation registered thousands of voters in the community. AAI estimates the number of Arab Americans in Orange County to more than 82,000; many of them are not registered to vote.

“If there is something we can learn from this election, it is that every vote counts, especially in a local election where the turnout is usually low,” said Vice Chair of the Middle Eastern American Democratic Project, Noor Higley. “We, as Arab Americans, alienated from the American experience. I constantly encounter other members of my community who have a negative attitude regarding involvement in the American political process, citing that opposing voices are too strong and will be able to defeat any efforts to politically empower the Arab American community. This defeatist attitude is the main reason why we are still struggling to become a stronger voice in our country: the USA,” explained Higley.

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