SAN JOSE -- Of all the candidates running for mayor of San Jose, Madison Nguyen is focusing the most on who she is as a person and the least on what she's done as an elected official.

San Jose's vice mayor has an inspiring rags-to-riches story stemming from her family's escape from Vietnam and has built a coalition of supporters -- especially the city's large immigrant population -- who see a rare politician they can connect with.

"I respect the person who came up from nothing to something. We can relate to her," said Vinni Walia, a 47-year-old leader in the local Indian community, when asked why he spent last weekend knocking on voters' doors for Nguyen.

But Nguyen's critics say she's downplaying her record because she's done too little in her decade on the City Council. Of the five mayoral challengers, her plans for what she'd do as mayor are the most vague. Asked about her potential mayoral legacy, Nguyen said simply that she would want to be remembered foremost as a hard worker.

While spending more than an hour knocking on undecided voters' doors in a West San Jose neighborhood last week, she didn't discuss a single city issue with the people who answered their doors -- in sharp contrast to her competitors. In almost every case, she introduced herself as vice mayor, handed them campaign materials, asked if they had any questions and left.

Nguyen responds to criticism about her record by pointing to various initiatives she's led. Those include a 2011 proposal to limit the number of medical marijuana shops, a 2012 effort to convert vacant houses for the homeless and a plan to limit adult-oriented "parlor" shops from opening near schools. The pot proposal is in line with restrictions the council is voting on next week, and the homeless issue will be voted on later this year.

However, she also embraces the strategy to focus on herself as a person instead of a politician. Her campaign newsletter features a full page of family photos. In 49 Facebook posts since the campaign began in December, she hasn't listed a single position on a city issue but has posted more than 30 pictures of herself and her family.

She starts most debates and events by retelling her back story, which she also covered in a 2012 book.

As a young child, she and her family escaped communist Vietnam during a harrowing weeklong journey at sea, spent about three years at refugee camps in the Philippines and eventually became farmworkers in the Central Valley. She began registering Vietnamese voters while in graduate school and was elected to the Franklin-McKinley school board at 27, before joining the council shortly thereafter, where her colleagues appointed her vice mayor in 2011.

"When people can identify with a mayor with similar stories, that creates a sense of trust," she says. "I'm very approachable. There's no barrier between me and them."

Nguyen, like her main competitors, has made public safety her top priority. She's even gone as far as to say she wants to make San Jose the safest big city in the country again after that title was lost last decade.

Her largest and most notable idea is to restore the police burglary unit, cut a couple years ago, partly by using community service officers and retired cops to do desk work. Like some of her colleagues, she also wants recruits who have been leaving the San Jose force to pay back taxpayers for training costs if they flee to other police agencies.

And she notes that unlike her mayoral challengers on the City Council -- Rose Herrera, Sam Liccardo and Pierluigi Oliverio -- the public safety unions that have fought the current administration originally supported Nguyen.

That relationship went out the window when Nguyen backed Mayor Chuck Reed's pension reform measure, which voters approved in 2012 but unions are battling in court. But Nguyen says her past relationship with unions gives her a leg up over her competitors on the council.

"I came out of the labor movement," she said. "They know they can work with me."

But her opponents, like Liccardo, say they've been more consistent in their views than Nguyen, pointing to her flip against the unions midway through her term to side with the pension reform majority on the council.

"She's proven that she can go along with whichever team is winning at that particular time, but she hasn't proven she possesses the skills, strategic thinking and planning capability necessary to lead," said Detective James Gonzales, president of the police union, which is backing county Supervisor Dave Cortese for mayor.

And the unions say Nguyen is dreaming if she think she can rekindle their past relationship.

"Union members will be voting against her," said Ben Field, head of the South Bay Labor Council.

Nguyen saw the pension measure as a "test" in her career -- a chance to show "where her heart is," even as she knew losing the union label could hurt her chances in her long-planned mayoral run. She cites the savings from the pension measure as necessary to hire more cops.

She says her stance on the pension issue gave her a chance to shine on a citywide stage after most voters had previously known her for the Little Saigon controversy, which led to a failed 2009 recall election against her. She says she no longer gets doors slammed in her face on the campaign trail.

Perhaps more than any other candidate, Nguyen is closely aligned ideologically with Reed. But while Reed took the reins of a city mired in deficits, Nguyen envisions a more financially prosperous term as mayor, hoping to restore services like library hours that were cut. Like her competitors, though, she doesn't want to do it via a sales tax measure that has been proposed for the November ballot.

Her supporters -- led by the city's Asian community, which makes up one-third of San Jose and has donated heavily to her campaign -- say they like how Nguyen stood up for her beliefs in both the pension and recall fights. They see someone who they think will stand up for them.

"She's proven herself to me and the community," said Robert Sandoval, a retired union worker and president of the West Evergreen Neighborhood Association. He tells voters the Latino community, which also makes up a third of the city but does not have a candidate in the race, backs Nguyen, too, largely because of her immigrant roots. "She is a truthful person."

Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenbergmerc.

Mayoral profiles
Each day this week, the Mercury News is profiling the five major candidates competing in the June 3 primary to replace termed-out Mayor Chuck Reed. The top two vote-getters will move on to compete in the November election. Monday: Dave Cortese. Tuesday: Rose Herrera. Wednesday: Sam Liccardo. Today: Madison Nguyen. Friday: Pierluigi Oliverio.

Madison Nguyen
Current job: San Jose council member since 2005 (appointed vice mayor in 2011)
Previous political experience: Franklin-McKinley school board, 2002-2005
Age: 39 (youngest among the candidates)
Political party: Democrat
Family: Husband and one daughter
Fundraising rank among five major candidates: About tied No. 2
Three endorsements she highlights: Campbell Mayor Rich Waterman, Los Gatos Mayor Steve Leonardis, Cupertino Mayor Gilbert Wong
Fun fact: She was the first Vietnamese-American to be elected to the City Council.