Viet­namese vote is key in Assem­bly race

Po­lit­i­cal new­comer Phu Nguyen courts bi­par­ti­san sup­port in O.C.

Los Angeles Times - - California - Mike Re­icher mike.re­icher@latimes.com

Af­ter one month at sea, the death of nine chil­dren aboard their boat and eight months in a Hong Kong refugee camp, Phu Nguyen’s fam­ily fi­nally ar­rived in Amer­ica. His par­ents had only $2 in their pock­ets when they came to Orange County in 1981, Nguyen says, and to­day they have a mul­ti­state cor­po­ra­tion and one of the nicest homes in Hunt­ing­ton Beach.

That quin­tes­sen­tial im­mi­grant story in­spired Nguyen, 33, to try to im­prove the lives of peo­ple in Viet­nam and in Amer­ica, he said re­cently. Now the Demo­crat is run­ning for the Cal­i­for­nia Assem­bly seat that rep­re­sents Costa Mesa, West­min­ster, Gar­den Grove and sur­round­ing ar­eas.

A po­lit­i­cal new­comer, Nguyen has held lead­er­ship po­si­tions in Viet­namese Amer­i­can groups and has vastly ex­panded his fam­ily’s over­seas re­mit­tance busi­ness. But many of his ac­com­plish­ments are from his time as a stu­dent, and he’s been crit­i­cized for his lack of govern­ment ex­pe­ri­ence.

“He has no track record, zero back­ground,” says his Repub­li­can op­po­nent, Costa Mesa Mayor Al­lan Man­soor.

Nguyen is per­haps best known lo­cally for help­ing to or­ga­nize Gar­den Grove’s an­nual Tet Fes­ti­val, cel­e­brat­ing the Viet­namese New Year. It’s the largest such fes­ti­val in the U.S. and has brought in hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars for com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Nguyen’s cel­e­bra­tion of his cul­tural her­itage makes for an in­ter­est­ing con­trast with Man­soor, whose Scan­di­na­vian and Egyp­tian roots don’t play much of a role in his pub­lic life. Man­soor, an out­spo­ken critic of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, has been crit­i­cized as not be­ing proud of his an­ces­try. Born and raised in the U.S., he says he feels Amer­i­can more than any­thing else.

“This is the land of im­mi­grants,” Nguyen said. “It’s im­por­tant that we all know our roots and what our fam­i­lies and an­ces­tors had to go through to get here.”

Be­fore he moved with his wife and two sons to a tidy home in a gated Gar­den Grove com­mu­nity, Nguyen was raised in a mod­est on­estory house in West­min­ster.

He lived there while his par­ents de­vel­oped their busi­ness of ship­ping goods back to Viet­nam. At first, peo­ple would send ba­sic items like fabrics.

Even­tu­ally, gifts evolved into money and the busi­ness be­came a lu­cra­tive re­mit­tance com­pany.

Nguyen ex­panded Hoa Phat from 10 branches through­out the U.S. to nearly 30. The cor­po­rate of­fice is in West­min­ster and out­posts can be found in ma­jor Viet­namese en­claves from Or­lando, Fla., to San Fran­cisco.

Nguyen’s de­trac­tors, some whom are fiercely an­ti­com­mu­nist, say his com­pany is help­ing the Viet­namese govern­ment by pump­ing money into its econ­omy.

“Of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion is en­demic in Viet­nam,” writes Matthew Cunningham, a blog­ger for the con­ser­va­tive web­site Red County, “and it is widely as­sumed govern­ment of­fi­cials take a rake-off as part of al­low­ing money trans­fers into their coun­try.”

The 47th Assem­bly District is 42% Repub­li­can and 33% Demo­crat. But Nguyen hopes to over­come that edge by woo­ing Repub­li­can Viet­namese vot­ers. Many in Lit­tle Saigon have voted Repub­li­can in the past, in­clud­ing Nguyen. He voted for Van Tran, the first Viet­namese Amer­i­can elected to any state leg­is­la­ture. With Tran run­ning for Congress, Nguyen and Man­soor are vy­ing for his seat.

Nguyen sup­ported Tran dur­ing his first run for Assem­bly in 2004 but has since “learned about the is­sues” and switched to the Demo­cratic side, he says.

He ma­jored in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Cal State Fuller­ton, grad­u­at­ing in 2002. In 2005 he earned a mas­ter’s in peace and jus­tice stud­ies from the Uni­ver­sity of San Diego.

Nguyen said he fa­vors green en­ergy, com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form, ed­u­ca­tion re­form and in­creased schools spend­ing. He op­poses abor­tion ex­cept in cir­cum­stances of rape or in­cest.

He was raised Catholic and his fam­ily was spon­sored by Catholic Char­i­ties af­ter it fled Viet­nam. In Costa Mesa, where the City Coun­cil passed a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, Nguyen says he senses “an aura of di­vi­sive­ness and fear.”

But the real di­vid­ing ques­tion will be whether Viet­namese Amer­i­cans will vote for Nguyen over Man­soor.

DEMO­CRAT: Phu Nguyen is hop­ing for a win in a Repub­li­can district.

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