Friday, January 18, 2008

SJMN's today article: Madison Nguyen needs to budge on Little Saigon

San Jose City Council member Madison Nguyen listens to public comment in the city council chambers in San Jose, Calif. on Tuesday, November 20, 2007. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News) ( Nhat V. Meyer )

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Herhold: Madison Nguyen needs to budge on Little Saigon

By Scott Herhold
Mercury News
Article Launched: 01/17/2008 01:31:50 AM PST

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San Jose City Council member Madison Nguyen listens to public comment in the... ( Nhat V. Meyer )«1»
Madison Nguyen talks about the controversy
Little Saigon protest
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What's in a name? Proposal on Vietnamese district in San Jose due todayIt's time for Councilwoman Madison Nguyen to give in. Call it Little Saigon. Or call it nothing at all.

Sooner or later, every politician has to make a decision that recognizes the fervor of sentiment on the other side. He or she may not agree with it. But politics is understanding which battles to fight.

This is the wrong battle for Nguyen to fight. The councilwoman concedes there is no economic argument against Little Saigon. If the area along Story Road were given that name, it would flourish and San Jose would continue to grow much as it has.

From a purely marketing perspective, which often gets forgotten here, Little Saigon surpasses Nguyen's clunky "Saigon Business District." She says her solution is a compromise. It's really a snore.

Marketing, sadly, is not what drives this fight. Instead, the brawl summons the ghosts of the old country. To Little Saigon partisans, it is a story of popular will denied. To Nguyen, it is a story of intimidation that cannot be allowed.

A savvy politician would find a way out of this. In the end, there is little shame in acknowledging a mistake, or understanding the depth of sentiment against you.

Nguyen says she would have been criticized no matter what she picked, and there is truth to that. Yet the backers of "New Saigon" have not gone to the barricades in the same way. I haven't heard from the fans of "Saigon Business District."

I agree with my colleague Patty Fisher that recall is the wrong answer. Yet by Nguyen's insistence on staying the course, she has helped lift this fight to a place it does not belong. It is one thing to take a stand on something like police brutality or Coyote Valley development. It's another to make "Saigon Business District" your final redoubt.

Nguyen says the name fits because she's trying to create a "business district," not a neighborhood like Japantown. As you talk with her, however, you understand her real reason for not giving in lies in her distaste for her foes' bullying.

"If I give in, I'm telling them it's OK to do that," Nguyen told a group of reporters and editors at the Mercury News. "And it's not."

Yet it's undeniable the Little Saigon people feel passionately about the name, which they regard as an homage to the old homeland. And you have to ask whether Vietnamese-Americans in San Jose would face any real harm if the Little Saigon people ultimately won: My guess is no. "Little Saigon" is far more likely to be the unofficial name anyway.

You can admire Nguyen's grit. It's what has taken her as far as she's gone. In a politician, however, grit can be a dangerous quality. She has better battles to fight. Call it Little Saigon. Or call it nothing at all.

Contact Scott Herhold at or (408) 920-5877.

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