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When Nguyen reached high-school age, her parents moved to Garden Grove. By then, they had also determined she would become a doctor. She attended UC Irvine as a biology major, planning to continue to medical school for an eventual career as an obstetrician. Meanwhile, she worked three jobs: weekend manager at a Robinsons-May department store, late-night supervisor at a movie theater and waitress at a local restaurant. In 1997, during her sophomore year, she attended a required social-science class on politics and government. Her teacher was Bill Steiner, then-chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
At some point toward the end of the class, Nguyen experienced something akin to a revelation: She would go into politics, not medicine. "I didn't know who [Steiner] was, didn't know what a supervisor was," she recalls. "But at the end of the class, I learned a lot. He gave us extra credit to go to the board meetings, and after the class, I thought to myself, 'Well, you know, he does sound important. And what he is doing sounds very important, and it sounds interesting.' . . . That's really where my political career started."
Nguyen asked Steiner for an internship, which quickly turned into a full-time job as an assistant, a post Nguyen continued after Steiner left office, replaced by Supervisor Cynthia Coad. She changed her major to political science, and about a year later, she told her parents about her new career choice. They weren't pleased.
"Their view was, we escaped the government, and now you're one of them," she says. "I never thought I was going into public office—'I'm going to be a supervisor'—it wasn't that. It was thinking, 'I am going to help empower people and make them understand about government, how we function.' That's what I wanted to do."
In May 1999, Nguyen left Coad's office to work as a field representative for Assemblyman Ken Maddox. She graduated from UC Irvine the following spring, by which time she had been promoted to a district representative, helping Maddox serve his Vietnamese-American constituents. She ultimately became Maddox's district director, supervising the entire staff at his Orange County headquarters.
"I was looking for somebody who spoke Vietnamese to work in my office because I represented Little Saigon," recalls Maddox, now a campaign consultant. "Janet showed some ability to speak Vietnamese, so I took her on as a field representative. Apparently, I didn't realize how little Vietnamese she spoke," he adds. "It became a source of controversy when I had a missionary who was not Vietnamese in my office who spoke more [of the language] than her."
While working for Maddox, Nguyen met Van Thai Tran, a lawyer who ran for a seat on the Garden Grove City Council in 2000. "I went in and introduced myself to him at his law office as the new field rep for Ken Maddox," she says. "Everyone in the community, including myself, supported him." Four years later, when Tran announced he would run for a newly redistricted assembly seat, she supported him again. Tran also cultivated Nguyen's political career, appointing her to the city's traffic commission in 2001 and the planning commission in 2002.
Two years later, Nguyen mounted a run for the Garden Grove City Council, with help from Maddox, who served as her campaign consultant. She won the race, receiving more votes than eight other candidates. "I was very excited about her becoming a city council member," Maddox says. "She was only the second woman and the youngest person elected. I was fond of her and thought she had a lot of integrity. She had ideas for Garden Grove, and I gave her a road map to try to help her get there."
During her brief stint on the city council, Nguyen made a name for herself as a pro-growth politician, living up to her promise of easing restrictions on business expansion and development in the city, which she felt was cash-strapped because of poor leadership. "Most of the other candidates in that race were anti-growth candidates," she says. While her opponents sought to curry favor among conservatives fed up with expensive redevelopment projects along Harbor Boulevard, Nguyen proposed even further economic revitalization, including what she liked to call "Platinum Triangle West," a Garden Grove version of Anaheim's Platinum Triangle urban-revitalization zone that never actually broke ground.
Nguyen says she distinguished herself by making Garden Grove more responsive to citizen's needs. "Let's control [economic growth] by making sure our businesses develop, and [let's] cut the red tape of city government to get permits to expand restaurants, expand banks," she says. "If you need more office space, let's get it. And if you're a homeowner and need a patio, let's get your patio. Let's not make you sit there for six months. That was my message. Let's continue what we're doing. Let's move Garden Grove forward."
The first sign of a split between Nguyen and her former friends in Orange County's Republican Party came last year, when Dina Nguyen (no relation), an attorney and Garden Grove Neighborhood Improvement Commission board member backed by Tran, ran for city council. According to several sources who spoke with the Weekly, Janet Nguyen felt threatened by the prospect of working alongside another female Vietnamese-American city council member.