Administrator’s Note

Vietnamese Americans have been striving hard to assimilate into mainstream of society.  To date, they are present in almost every professional field in America and, by and large, successful.  Vietnamese Americans are industrious, ambitious but considerate and grateful people.  Given the opportunity, they will try their utmost best to excel.  

    The Victor –

Thursday, September 15, 2005  –  By Jami Farkas

A day after her decisive victory in Tuesday’s San Jose City Council special election, Madison Nguyễn couldn’t take time off to savor the win. She couldn’t allow herself the luxury of sleeping late.

She awoke early Wednesday, working the phones, planning, putting together staff to help her as she takes office.

“We’re going to have a very strong transition team,” she said. “I just don’t want to have this perception that, ‘She’s very inexperienced, she’s very young.’”

At 30, she is young. But as a veteran school-board member and an active campaigner for causes and candidates she believes in, she isn’t exactly inexperienced. No one will call her that.

Instead, they’ll just call her Madame Councilmember.

When she takes office next Tuesday, Nguyễn will become the first Vietnamese American to serve on the city council in San Jose. The current president of the board of the Franklin-McKinley School District, she was the first Vietnamese American woman elected to office in the state in late 2002.

But serving on the council will thrust her into the national spotlight. The U.S. Census Bureau in June, based on its most recent population estimates, named San Jose, with nearly 905,000 residents, the nation’s 10th-largest city, surpassing Detroit.

“It’s a bit overwhelming when you look at it from that perspective,” she said.

But Nguyễn likes a challenge.

In Tuesday’s election, she gained 62 percent of the vote, beating Linda Nguyễn, 28. It wasn’t an easy contest. Madison Nguyễn, who is single, faced a tough battle that included accusations that she had an affair with a married man, something voters apparently easily discounted.

“Even when we were faced with it …we were more focused with addressing the issues,” she said. “I wasn’t very surprised. Stuff like this happens all the time in campaigns.

“It’s so great to have two young Vietnamese American women willing to put their name out there, willing to put their life out there in the public eye.”

Madison Nguyễn was born in Việt Nam and moved to the United States with her family at 4, settling in Scottsdale, Ariz. They resettled to Modesto, Calif., where her parents were farm workers, picking produce. Many of those who labored with them had come from Mexico to toil on the farms.

In a way, her humble beginnings make Nguyễn uniquely qualified to serve as the council member representing San Jose’s District 7, a working-class area made up primarily of Vietnamese and Latinos. The seat became open in January when Councilman Terry Gregory resigned under fire. He was facing 11 misdemeanor counts of failing to report gifts and using his office for personal gain. He pleaded no contest to avoid a jail sentence.

Nguyễn will hold office only until December 2006, when Gregory’s term was to expire. She said she knows she’ll have to begin a re-election campaign in just a few months. In this election, she garnered the support of several influential San Jose residents and groups, as well as the endorsement of the San Jose Mercury News.

She will be part of a 10-member city council. Together, they will govern a metropolis that is nearly equally split among whites, Hispanics and Asians. The white population is about 33 percent, while the Hispanics make up about 32 percent and Asians about 29 percent.

“I publicly endorsed her, I donated to her campaign,” said Jean Libby, a historian who has lived in Santa Clara County for more than 40 years and now runs a thriving e-mail listserv that celebrates the achievements of Vietnamese Americans. “She is a person who is very interested in social issues that are important to the county, particularly those of farm workers who come from a poor background, being a farm worker once herself. She formed a coalition with them that was very heartwarming.”

“This is a very exciting time, not just for the Vietnamese community but for District 7,” Nguyễn said. “We’ve been without a representative for a long time.”

Nguyễn said she will work for the entire population of San Jose as she knows members of the city’s large Vietnamese community, no matter where they live, will turn to her for assistance.

“The kind of responsibility and accountability I will look forward to will run across the city,” she said.

“In her new job,” Libby added, “her biggest challenge will be establishing her voice firmly as representing the ordinary people of the city — and being immediately identified with that representation.”

***

Stumping is tough. Raising money is tough, even harder when your opponent is the daughter of real-estate developers, as attorney Linda Nguyễn was, and comes from a more solid financial background.

But Nguyễn said the hurdles makes a candidate stronger.

“It’s really good for us to encounter that,” she said. “It gives us some kind of training for bigger things.”

Her bigger thing now is a job as a full-time, $75,000-a-year councilmember in San Jose. Her secondary job will continue to be to serve as a role model for young immigrant women interested in seeking office.

“I am excited to see more Vietnamese American women getting involved in politics,” said Janet Nguyễn, a councilwoman in Garden Grove, Calif. “Only through personal commitment and involvement can we assert our political voice and our strength. The race in San Jose clearly demonstrates the ever-growing political awakening of our community.”

Madison Nguyễn said she saw that along the campaign trail.

“We had so much support, it’s unbelievable,” she said. “Across our race, our gender, our age group.”

Still, Nguyễn has no illusions that this will be an easy post, but she said public service is what she is cut out for.

“I think it’s a calling. It’s more than just a career,” she said. “I like the challenge. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the motivation for me.

“I didn’t know I’d be able to do this at this young age. I definitely knew I wanted to do this and this would be a part of my life.”

Nguyễn said she believes the reason she defeated Linda Nguyễn was her experience in public office. That’s what she heard from voters. And what she wants to share in return with them is her dedication.

“I’m very focused. I believe in results. When I got elected to the school board, I was so focused on the school board that I didn’t even have a full-time job,” she said.

She learned from that experience that having a social life and nurturing a relationship is hard while serving the public. For now, all of that will go on the back burner, she said.

The issues she cited as important to her in the election also will consume much of her schedule, moving forward. Her goals: to combat gang violence; to provide affordable housing units; to revitalize the economy and create jobs; and to form a strong partnership with educators to boost after-school opportunities.

But before Tuesday’s inauguration, before she gets started on her list, maybe she’ll take a few minutes to reflect on her accomplishment.

“I’m pretty much living out the American dream,” she said. “This is what I thought about when I was little. The notion of endless possibilities.”

Staff writers Anh Đỗ and Audrey Phạm contributed to this report.

Re-printed with permission of Nguoi Viet Daily News.

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