In Orange County's Little Saigon, Vietnamese American Voters Are Courted In Closely-Watched Congressional Race

Catt Phan of Fountain Valley is among the young progressives who are changing the face of the Vietnamese American electorate. (Thanh Truong)

Tam Nguyen can't escape the torrent of political advertising blanketing his Congressional district in coastal Orange County and springing onto his social media timelines — often in Vietnamese.

"I've never seen this many mailers, this many signs, and this much effort from two non-Vietnamese candidates into the Vietnamese community," Nguyen said.

For Nguyen, whose family operates Advance Beauty College, it's about time. The Vietnamese American vote is critical to victory in the close contest for the 48th District between incumbent Democratic Congressman Harley Rouda and Republican Michelle Steel, an Orange County Supervisor.

Both candidates are heavily courting the Little Saigon community that spans several cities in the district and is home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, with estimates upwards of 200,000.

The race for the 48th is expensive and closely-watched. Rouda famously defeated 30-year Congressman Dana Rohrabacher as part of the blue wave of 2018 that swept up traditionally-red districts in Orange County during mid-term elections.

But two years later, Rouda is facing a stronger challenger than Rohrabacher, whose Russia-friendly views cost him amid uproar over Kremlin interference in the U.S. presidential election. And there are still more voters in the district registered as Republicans than Democrats.

Democractic Rep. Harley Rouda is facing a challenge for the 48th District from Republican Michelle Steel. (Photos courtesy of the candidates)

Analysts give Rouda the edge, but even his campaign concedes the margin of victory could be small. That has shifted more focus to Vietnamese American voters, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rolling out its first-ever Vietnamese-language ad targeting Steel on a national Vietnamese cable channel. Steel put out her own ad with well-known politicians from Little Saigon endorsing her in Vietnamese.

Both candidates have also been highlighting issues important in Little Saigon such as support for small businesses and, during the pandemic, reopening nail salons — an industry dominated by Vietnamese Americans. Nguyen said he appreciated their support especially after Gov. Gavin Newsom made the unsubstantiated claim that the first case of community spread in California was traced back to a nail salon.

Even the scandals bubbling up in the race touch on flashpoints for the Vietnamese diaspora — from Rouda's attendance of Vietnam War-themed parties at his college fraternity in the 1980s to Democrats charging that Steel's husband improperly offered Chinese nationals linked to the Communist regime access to U.S. leaders.

Tam Nguyen, whose family owns Advance Beauty College schools, said that both candidates for the 48th district have advocated for the nail salon industry, which is dominated by Vietnamese Americans. (Josie Huang/LAist)

"CRUCIAL SWING VOTERS"

Opposition to Communism and hostility toward China is what initially brought the first waves of Vietnamese immigrants into the GOP fold. This was especially evident in Orange County, where many refugee arrivals were former South Vietnamese military and government officials, said Linda Trinh Vo, an Asian American studies professor at University of California, Irvine.

"Their political leanings are going to be staunchly anti-Communist," Vo said. "They have in many ways shaped the politics of Little Saigon in Orange County."

Aspiring Vietnamese American politicians were mentored by the GOP and moved through a pipeline into state Legislature and municipal government posts. Today, the early investment by the GOP is evident in the Vietnamese surnames emblazoned on giant campaign signs for everything from state Assembly to the local water district.

Bolsa Avenue in Westminster is lined with large signs for Vietnamese American candidates. (Josie Huang/LAist)

For decades, the Vietnamese American vote was reliably Republican. But it's become less predictable in recent years, with 1.5- and second-generation voters gravitating to President Obama and the Democrats, and prioritizing issues such as immigration reform, racial justice and health care over geopolitics in Asia.

Democrats and Republicans alike hope to peel off Vietnamese American voters who are not strongly aligned with either party, including newer immigrants.

"They're actually malleable," Vo said. "They can be crucial swing voters in elections."

Twenty-nine-year old Peter Nguyen of Costa Mesa is pulling long hours to move swing voters into the Democratic column.

Peter Nguyen paused a career in physical therapy to work on getting Democrats elected. (Photo courtesy of Peter Nguyen)

Nguyen put his burgeoning career as a physical therapist on pause this year in anticipation of the election and became a local organizer for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Nguyen, who was born in an Indonesian refugee camp and emigrated with his mother to the U.S. when he was four, had been apolitical for most of his life. Then, President Trump entered office and launched efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Nguyen began to worry about his mother, a medical assistant.

"How can she afford a premium that's through the roof when she has not been able to put any kind of money away for retirement because her income was so low?" Nguyen said. "You shouldn't be able to be rich and get better health care."

His mom, though, was mystified why Nguyen had taken on grueling political work, and one day they had a big argument about it, as he tried to explain why it was so important to him. Three hours later, she apologized.

Since then, she has made 400 calls on behalf of Rouda and cast her ballot for the first time she can remember in years, Nguyen said.

"AMERICA FIRST"

Nguyen and his mother are part of a trend of Asian Americans moving to the left end of the political spectrum. But the pace for Vietnamese Americans is slower.

Among Asian Americans, Vietnamese Americans have the largest share of voters who identify as Republican — 38%, according to AAPI Data, and the only group for whom support for President Trump outstrips that for Democratic challenger Joe Biden — 48% versus 36%.

Boi Le, a tailor in Westminster, emigrated to the U.S. in his mid-20s three decades ago, sponsored by his father.

Boi Le, who owns a tailor shop in Westminster, has voted Republican since emigrating to the U.S. three decades ago. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Le, 56, has voted Republican ever since, liking what he hears GOP candidates saying on Vietnamese language radio.

Speaking outside his shop, as his six-year-old son ran circles around him, Le broke into a smile talking about President Trump and praised his push for a border wall and Chinese tariffs.

"He's a businessman and he knows the way to make money for the country," Le said. "The most important thing he was saying is 'America first.'"

Le had no problem with Trump's repeated use of the terms "Chinese virus" and "kung flu," even though civil rights groups have linked the rhetoric to a rise in hate incidents against Asians in recent months.

Republican candidate Steel found anti-Asian incidents worrisome, but defended the president's comments about the virus.

"You know what? It originated from China, and we used to say 'Spanish flu,'" said Steel, a member of the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Steel, though, stressed she does not blindly follow Trump. For example, she opposes the deportation of Vietnamese with criminal convictions because she thinks they'd be persecuted in Vietnam.

She said she draws from her experience as an immigrant herself.

"Both parents fled from North Korea," Steel said. "So we actually share the common ground between Vietnamese American community and me."

Jeremy Tran, 55, agrees. He said he has admired Steel from her days on the California State Board of Equalization — she became the highest-ranking Korean American woman in government when she was elected in 2006 — and then joined her staff for two years when she was elected to the Board of Supervisors.

Jeremy Tran is a Michelle Steel supporter who used to work for her and now anchors a Vietnamese-language news show aired on YouTube. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Tran)

"She's an Asian American immigrant," said Tran, who now works for the county in housing assistance and anchors a Vietnamese-language news show broadcast on YouTube. "We value a lot of the same values for our American life, which is the freedom of speech, freedom of religions."

But sharing some common ground is not enough for 24-year-old Catt Phan of Fountain Valley. An organizer for state Democrats, Phan was raised by a working immigrant mom who relied on the government for food stamps, housing assistance and health care.

"It's not just about the immigrants that are successful," Phan said. "It's about the immigrants that are struggling, the immigrants that need help, and that have fallen through the cracks, and remain there."

Rouda's cultural background is different from hers, but Phan said his platform and the Democratic Party are better at serving people of color and immigrant women.

"He comes in as more than just an ally," Phan said. "He comes in as an advocate and opens the door."

Younger Vietnamese Americans such as Phan make Rouda optimistic he can keep the seat Democratic.

At the same time, Rouda — a former Republican and operator of a brokerage firm — touts his bipartisan bonafides and chafes against Steel's charges that he has become too liberal in Congress. He says he's proud of the laws he passed with GOP co-sponsors, including legislation that bans the use of federal funds to buy rail cars from manufacturers with ties to the Chinese government.

"I was able to get three bills passed into law in my first term," Rouda said. "You can't do that unless you're willing to reach across the aisle and work with the other side, especially in this environment."

"SO MUCH NOISE"

As Election Day approaches, campaigning has veered from being strictly about policy. Steel supporters have attacked Rouda, an Ohio native, for attending "Mekong Delta" parties that his fraternity at the University of Kentucky hosted. Rouda described the parties as "insensitive" and blames his attendance on youthful ignorance.

Democrats, meanwhile, accuse Steel's husband, Shawn Steel, the former chair of the California Republican Party, of introducing Trump donors with ties to the Chinese government to Republican leaders. They say Michelle Steel is complicit as chief financial officer of her husband's law firm. Steel says "there's nothing there."

Linda Nguyen's 12-year-old daughter Lena is trying to convince the business consultant to vote for Democrats, while her Nguyen's father wants her to go Republican. (Josie Huang/LAist)

None of this helps undecided voter Linda Nguyen, a 40-year-old business consultant from Garden Grove.

"There's just so much noise right now," Nguyen said. "It's almost like a tug of war. You're being pulled in every direction as a voter who's in the middle."

Her ballot is sitting on her dining room table. Nguyen said her family isn't helping matters. Nguyen's 80-something father wants her to vote Republican. Her 12-year-old daughter? Democrat.