SAN JOSE -- Vietnamese-American voters could play a crucial role in the Santa Clara County District 2 supervisorial runoff between labor leader Cindy Chavez and water district communications manager Teresa Alvarado.
In the June 4 primary that featured six candidates, large blocks of the ethnic group supported Scott Hung Pham, who is Vietnamese-American. The San Jose City College instructor earned 14 percent of the vote, landing in third place.
Chavez captured 40.85 percent of the vote, and second-place Alvarado snagged 32.14 percent. Since no candidate won more than 50 percent, Chavez and Alvarado are in a July 30 run-off.
Pham recently endorsed Chavez, which San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston said could boost her campaign.
"This guy got 14 percent," he said. "Even if you get half of it, you're smelling like a rose."
Alvarado also has backing from her own Vietnamese-American contingent, including Madison Nguyen, San Jose's first elected Vietnamese-American councilwoman and vice mayor.
But without a Vietnamese-American candidate on the ballot, Gerston and others wonder how many of the group's voters will turn out this time around.
"The question becomes: Since it's summer and a run-off with only one thing on the ballot and given that the only Vietnamese candidate is now out of the race, why should his (Pham's) supporters, or for that matter supporters of any other candidate no longer in the race, give a hoot?" Gerston said.
Paul Le, a financial analyst and vice president of Viet Voters, agreed that "it's a fair statement to say that Pham got a lot of votes because of his last name." However, he noted that there is widespread interest in the run-off.
"Anyone following the Vietnamese media would see it's being flooded with campaign ads," from radio to television to newspapers, he said.
"We have been residing in Northern California for 38 years, and we have seen a lot of empty promises," Le said. "We want to participate and have our voices heard."
Key among their concerns during a recent voter forum Le's group sponsored was the lack of a Vietnamese-American community center, the county's staggering retiree debt, and health care.
Le, who lives in District 2, admired both women's "courage," but he would not say who he is voting for.
MyLinh Pham, a local health educator, said she supports Alvarado.
"I feel she can bring a fresh voice to the Board of Supervisors," she said. "Teresa can do a better job of determining the future of Santa Clara County."
But Nghia Nguyen, an insurance agent, said he is voting for Chavez because "for someone to be at the county level, that person should have experience, and it seems like she is qualified."
Of the 22,568 voters who cast ballots in the primary, 5,861 -- or 26 percent -- came from Vietnamese-Americans, according to Political Data Inc., a political number crunching firm.
The company's data shows that the greatest number of votes cast by Vietnamese-Americans -- 2,957 -- came from a portion of Central San Jose that is the heart of the Vietnamese community and is represented by Madison Nguyen on the City Council. Another 1,101 votes were cast by Vietnamese residents in the East Side part of the city represented by Councilman Xavier Campos, a Chavez ally. And in greater downtown San Jose, the area represented by Councilman Sam Liccardo, an Alvarado ally, 575 votes by Vietnamese-Americans were tallied.
Information from the Registrar of Voters shows Scott Hung Pham also drew large numbers of voters in those three districts.
Santa Clara County has the highest percentage of Vietnamese-Americans in the country -- 7.6 percent of the county's total population in 2010. And while a growing number of politically active members of the Vietnamese community are involved in both campaigns, each candidate still has some liabilities with Vietnamese-American voters.
Madison Nguyen's endorsement carries some backlash for Alvarado. Some voters have not forgiven her for the furor she caused six years ago over her preference to name a strip of mostly Vietnamese shops on Story Road in her district "Saigon Business District" instead of "Little Saigon." The outcry led to an attempt to recall Nguyen, which she survived.
At the recent voter forum, concerns were raised about gambling, a sensitive issue in the Asian community, where leaders say problems associated with it have led to crime and an increase in the need for social services.
Chavez's campaign consultant Ed McGovern is a lobbyist and spokesman for the Bay 101 card club and last year was the lead consultant behind San Jose's Measure E, which sought to increase the number of gambling tables in both of the city's card rooms. The South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, which Chavez led until last year, also accepted $90,000 to help pass the measure, which failed.
Chavez has pointed out that an independent expenditure committee raising money for Alvarado accepted a donation from the city's other card club, Casino M8trix. Campaign finance records show that casino donated $2,000 on Alvarado's behalf in the primary.
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.
Source: Santa Clara County
Registrar of Voters