Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Case Against Little Saigon

A Case Against Little Saigon

John Vu

In the 2004 city council race for District 7, the two front running candidates realized the importance of the Vietnamese American swing vote. There were promises to the Vietnamese-American community leaders of the possibility of naming a Vietnamese business area Little Saigon. The community had been trying for years to have a business area designated Little Saigon in District 7. When the then Councilmember Terry Gregory left office in 2005, Madison Nguyen and Linda Nguyen in their race to replace him also made this a campaign issue.

Last month, Councilmember Madison Nguyen made this a reality with the city council approved the name Saigon Business District for a one mile strip on Story Road, west of Highway 101. Yet afterward, Madison Nguyen finds herself in a political backlash with discussion of a recall. Her supporters dismiss this as an empty threat by a vocal minority group in the community. Most city council members think this is nonsense and will fizzle out. Behind the scene, the very powerful and influential lobbyist and consultant for Mayor Chuck Reed, Vic Aljouny, made his returned to the San Jose politics and started calling mainstream media and leaders to gather support for Madison Nguyen. The Mercury News ran three articles within two weeks stating the recall is uncalled for and that a dedicated and honest politician like Madison Nguyen "should not be recalled but cloned."

So what is the political reality of this unfortunate political episode for the Vietnamese-American community and can the community reconcile?

The Sentiment

As reported in the Mercury News, over 2,000 people attended an open public meeting on Sunday, Dec 9 at the GI Forum. This is the largest crowd ever to be at a municipal political rally as noted by the Mercury News. They sat for 4 hours listening and cheering loudly as community and business leaders made cases against Madison Nguyen and the demand for the name Little Saigon.

A well dressed Hispanic man came to the event and noted:" It is ironic but a year ago, there was a huge banner in front of GI Forum by some members of the Hispanic community that said Madison does not represent District 7 and the Mexican American community."

By coincidence, that same afternoon at the city hall, a Vietnamese-American group that supported Madison Nguyen paid over $4,000 to rent the rotunda for their coming out political event. Mayor Chuck Reed and Vic Aljouny attended the occasion. There were about 75 people in attendance. They talked about how they truly represented the community and expressed their strong support for Madison Nguyen.

The Three Stories

To the mainstream public, the words of the former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery in his blog probably capture their best view – "While it is difficult to understand why Madison Nguyen was so blind-sided by the somewhat predictable events of the last few weeks (and the strong feelings behind them), the council supported her down the line."

However, within the Vietnamese-American community, there are three stories well known. The second of three stories is reported here.
In April of this year, 2 months before the council voted on the approval of the naming of the proposed area on Story Road, Madison Nguyen requested the city staff and Redevelopment Agency (RDA) to meet with the owner of Vietnam Town Mall on Story Road. The Vietnam Town Mall project is well known in the community for being delayed since the beginning of the year. Their financial problems are detailed an investigative article by the San Jose Business Journal in November by Sharon Simonson.
Besides her own meeting with Jimmy Nguyen, Sonny Nguyen (her investment partner) and Paul Krutko, San Jose City chief development officer to make a case for naming the area, this was the only meeting that Madison Nguyen asked the city staff as well as her own staff to meet with any members or business owners of the community before the June vote.
It was a high power meeting. In attendance were the deputy city manager, Madison Nguyen's chief of staff, director of project management, director of neighborhood and business development, senior graphic designer and marketing and communication manager. The owner of Vietnam Town Mall (Tang Lap) had with him his two trusted aides who handled the finance and marketing of the Vietnam Town Mall project. The meeting was about the naming of the area. At the meeting, Tang Lap requested the naming to be Vietnam Town Business District and he was willing to pay for the maintenance of signs and banners.
The city staff felt uneasy and told him that they would take his proposal under advisement. At a follow-up meeting, the city staff told him that they could not accept his offer for it could give the appearance of allowing a private party to use public property to advertise or promote its business.
In private though, Madison Nguyen gave him the signal that she would arrange so that the area would be named Vietnam Town Business District. With confidence, he ordered the design of two granite signs with the chiseled words "Vietnam Town Business District." The granite signs design was made available to the community by the company commissioned to do the work.
On June 5, at the urging of Madison Nguyen, the city council approved the Vietnamese naming of the proposed area. The community in the area in general was not informed by this decision. Dennis King, the executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, found out about the naming of this area a month later by accident as he was talking to an executive of the Wal-Mart store on Story Road.
Through the rumor mill, the Vietnamese-American community heard about the naming of the area. Tien Nguyen, the president of the Vietnamese-American Community of Northern California, asked her what the vote was about. She told him that the council had approved the naming of the area as Vietnam Town Business District.

He asked her again for clarification and mentioned the fact why not Little Saigon but Vietnam Town Business District. She replied that it was too late and the community never spoke up. He was stunned since the issue of this important to the community and Madison Nguyen never bothered to inform the community.

The Vietnamese-American press began to questions Madison Nguyen publicly and forced her to call a community meeting in August. At the end of the meeting, the packed crowd began to chant: "Down with Madison", "Madison is a liar" for they felt she had insulted them with condescending comments and her hidden agendas.

Circle the Wagon

After the Sunday rally at the GI Forum, Mayor Chuck Reed went on a radio show to defend Madison Nguyen and her decision. Some callers called in and asked if there were hidden agendas and dealing behind the scenes.

Some city council members are talking about a compromise of calling it "Little Saigon Business District". In the Green Room, some council members approached the mayor for the possibility of a compromise. He rejected and stood his ground.

In private, the city council members know that a polarizing politician would never last and they feel sympathetic to her predicament. They also realize that there are more to the story then told to them by Madison Nguyen.

Madison Nguyen was irritated when the Mercury News called her at her home about the Sunday rally. She told them:" You will see, I will serve out the remainder of my three years." Her chief of staff, coming from a Hmong community in Minnesota and having dealt with various controversies before with Hmong elected officials, assures her that they have enough support from the community. The community will tear each other apart and all of these will become nothing more than noises she told her.

To Madison Nguyen, these people are do nothing people with no jobs and extremists. She wishes she had not said so in public and on recorded TV but what done was done. But what bothers her most is the realization that some of her closest supporters are deserting her and now she can only trust a few people for information even leaks out from her inner circle meeting.