If you need a metaphor for Bao Nguyen's stunning win as Garden Grove's new mayor earlier this month and what it means for the future of Orange County, look no further than the city's historic Main Street on election night. The storefront-heavy stretch is the last remnant of Garden Grove's old downtown, nowadays a forlorn place usually as alive as a two-stoplight town somewhere in Kansas. But as election results rolled in on Nov. 4, the street hosted two distinct parties right across from each other.
On the west side of Main, at Azteca Restaurant, Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen (no relation) celebrated her resounding win over former state assemblyman Jose Solorio for the 34th District seat in the state Senate. Most of the attendees were older Vietnamese, and a catering van delivered trays of Vietnamese food--insular Little Saigon politics at its finest. The rejection of Azteca's renowned Cal-Mex cuisine was fitting, given Janet has made a career of winning in Central Orange County by pitting Vietnamese and Latino voters against each other.
Contrast that with Bao's shindig, held at the Globe Belgian GastroPub. Here, the crowd reflected the host city--white, Latino, Vietnamese, Arab, overwhelmingly young. Bao thanked his supporters in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, and the energy was high even though he ended the night a loser, down by 300-some votes to longtime incumbent Bruce Broadwater. Janet's party was far larger than Bao's--but his has yet to end. Every day that followed, the margin between Bao and Broadwater narrowed as mail-in and provisional ballots continued being tallied. On Nov. 17, OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley declared Bao the winner by a razor-thin margin of 15 votes.
Ignore Bao's impressive bio for a bit: his birth in a Thai refugee camp, his news-grabbing protest in 2000 when he and other UC Irvine undergrads wore T-shirts at a Little Saigon rally for John McCain reading "American Gook" to call out the presidential candidate's unapologetic use of the slur. Yes, Bao is now the first Vietnamese American mayor in the U.S. of a city with a population of more than 100,000. Sí, the 34-year-old is now the youngest mayor in Garden Grove history, as well as one of the youngest mayors in Orange County. Vâng, he now becomes one of only a handful of Democratic Vietnamese Americans ever elected in Orange County, a region where Little Saigon politicians had to join the GOP to guarantee victory.
Here's the most important takeaway from Bao's victory: He's the first candidate to emerge from OC's progressive political machine remaking the county for the better.
"I'm putting all my Buddhist beliefs to use right now," Bao said over a Delirium Noël at the Globe, which has become his de facto public office. Soft-spoken, with a dry sense of humor punctuated by a George Takei-style laugh, Bao is the perfect candidate for 21st century Orange County: immigrant, native, trilingual, young, progressive and with a steely spine ready to take on anything.
Bao seemed destined for electoral politics. He would argue with conservative classmates at Pacifica High during the 1996 Bob Dornan-Loretta Sanchez battle. He volunteered for former state senator Joe Dunn's campaign while studying political science at UC Irvine and won an internship that took him to Capitol Hill. But Bao left the political realm early last decade to earn a master's degree in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, a private university founded by a Tibetan monk with the help of Beat poets. "I wasn't sure politics was the best way for change--it first had to happen from within," says Bao, reflecting on why he initially left politics. "But there, I learned it's not one extreme or the other--it's the middle way. I came down the mountain, so to speak"--a line so corny Bao laughed immediately after uttering it.
"Politics is not about being perfect," he continues, reverting to being serious. "It's about going into the muck. Helping others is the path."
And that he did. After returning home in 2006, Bao did everything from work as a substitute teacher to register voters for the Obama campaign to becoming a community organizer for Orange County Congregation Community Organization, taking a couple of months off to learn Spanish at an immersion school in Mexico. And he also made connections with the Centro Cultural de México, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that has served as a finishing school for many of the county's prominent progressive activists. He used this base to win a seat on the Garden Grove Unified School District in 2012, after losing in 2010.
In the meantime, Garden Grove kept living up to its Garbage Grove nickname. Broadwater and other bureaucrats ignored the rest of the city in favor of pushing for development along Harbor Boulevard, hoping to get crumbs of business from Disneyland up the street. A culture of nepotism kept finding jobs and board appointments for friends and relatives of Broadwater and council members. Sensing voter discontent, Bao decided to run on a platform of open government and investing beyond what he refers to as "Mickey Mouse's coattails."
Victory seemed unlikely, despite the backing of the Orange County Labor Federation and the Democratic Party. But through meet-and-greets, precinct walking, and calling on his volunteer base, Bao pulled off an improbable victory. Unsurprisingly, Bao had to weather smear campaigns painting him as a communist sympathizer, a move that cost him thousands of votes.
He's still taking stock of the issues facing the city, but he has already announced his primary focus.
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"Our schools keep graduating kids who get amazing degrees--and never come back to Garden Grove," he says. "That's very problematic with me. We need to utilize the homegrown talent. We need to invest in the city by attracting businesses and jobs." Bao takes a particular interest in the city's younger residents, not just because of his own age and his two years on the school board, but because he feels that constituency pushed him over the top. "We got a lot of mail-in votes from college towns--those students were the 15 [votes that secured his victory]."
In the meanwhile, Bao wants to fly to Silicon Valley on his own dime to try to recruit tech firms to set up shop in what he's calling "Silicon Grove." He wants to put online as many city documents as possible--"a transparent government not only makes us accountable, but [also] gets people interested in paying attention." And more than anything, he wants people to pay attention.
"The only thing I expect from voters," Bao concludes, his voice rising with passion, "is for them to hold me to my word. Don't leave me hanging. Hold me accountable!"