SAN JOSE -- Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen's central San Jose district is up for grabs for the first time in nearly a decade, and four contenders are vying to succeed her in representing the heavily Latino and Vietnamese area on the City Council.
District 7, which includes some of the city's least prosperous pockets, has had its share of controversy in its council representatives. Nguyen won a special 2005 election to replace Terry Gregory after he resigned amid corruption charges. She then faced her own firestorm when her Vietnamese base fractured over her opposition to naming a Story Road retail area "Little Saigon," a furor that spawned a failed recall attempt. She's now running for mayor, having reached her two-term limit.
Nguyen has endorsed Buu Thai, a longtime friend who serves on the Franklin-McKinley school board where Nguyen got her start in politics. Thai is among three Vietnamese-Americans in the race and, like the vice mayor, came to America when her family fled their homeland after the Vietnam War.
"We had three generations living in a two-bedroom house," Thai said. "We were on public assistance and very fortunate to have programs that helped us. I want to pay it forward in terms of helping families like mine have an opportunity."
The one candidate to praise the incumbent's leadership, Thai said that her 15 years of experience in nonprofits, youth programming and public policy make her the "only candidate that has that kind of diversity and skills with governance."
Thai prioritizes public safety, but said that instead of adding officers she's more interested in early prevention. She said the city can support youth through activity and homework centers to "keep young folk engaged and busy" and less likely to cause trouble. Thai called small business "the backbone of the district," which needs to be fostered by simplifying the permitting process so that "immigrant families can participate and understand."
Despite the incumbent's endorsement, Thai has lagged behind two others in early fundraising. And a key distinction between Thai and the vice mayor is her opposition to the Measure B pension reforms that Nguyen and Mayor Chuck Reed championed to curb runaway retirement costs that have devoured funding for services. Thai argues that a more collaborative effort between the city and unions works at her school district.
Leading the field in early fundraising is Van Le, who said her service as trustee on the large Eastside Union High School District board, previous work with the city's former redevelopment agency and business experience has put her in a prime position to represent the district.
Also putting public safety atop the checklist, she said the city should emphasize neighborhood safety and keeping crime away from schools. She said the community feels disconnected from their representative.
"City Hall is too far away -- we need to reach out to residents," she said. "That's why I really want to support neighborhood associations, town hall meetings."
Le pitched herself as the only steadfast pension reform candidate, having strongly supported Measure B.
"I don't want to see San Jose become the city of Detroit," she said. "We need to have a vision and look after the next generation of children and grandchildren."
Le has business backing from the chamber of commerce, an advantage in a race where labor hasn't picked a favorite. Like Thai, she said the permit process needs an overhaul to help invigorate the district's economy.
"You drive by King Road, Story Road, you'll see Latino businesses on one side and Little Saigon on the other," she said. "You help the small businesses, you create more jobs."
Tam Nguyen, no relation to the vice mayor, is the only candidate who is not a school trustee and has not held public office. A close second in early fundraising, he's also the candidate most outspoken against the departing incumbent. He says outrage over her Little Saigon position was the "boiling point" after numerous disappointments with her in the Vietnamese community.
Nguyen calls himself a "fighter for the poor people" who has devoted himself to serving the less fortunate since 1987, when he quit his engineering job to become an attorney after learning the Vietnamese community was not being properly represented in the courts.
He recently represented Vietnamese families who had been bilked out of funeral funds and served as counsel for Ly Tong, the colorful anti-communist activist who pepper-sprayed a Vietnamese pop singer in 2010 and staged a hunger strike to support "Little Saigon."
Nguyen said people need to be empowered through training and classes to get basic skills to move ahead. And while he says it's important to get more officers on the streets, he stresses that there's also a need for self-reliance.
He wants to serve in the interest of constituents who don't talk about pension reform, who are less concerned about homeless encampments than they are about keeping a roof over their own heads.
"District 7 has been neglected for a long time, but Vietnamese-American voters have awakened," he said. "The poor people are going to stand up and make history."
Maya Esparza, another Franklin-McKinley trustee, said she has also heard from residents who feel District 7 hasn't been served.
"I hear a lot of frustration," she said. "People are telling me they're not heard, they don't get responses and now they're frustrated with the city."
Esparza, who trailed the pack in early fundraising, said her family's roots are deep in community activism, and she has been dedicated to public service for the past 20 years, working for nonprofits as well as Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren. She was also chief of staff for former Councilwoman Nora Campos, now a state assemblywoman.
"I know what it's like to be able to get something done at the city," Esparza said. "I know how the city works. I would bring a practical, problem-solving approach."
Among those problems: crime, blight and homelessness, which she said are more rampant in District 7 than in other parts of the city.
She said part of the problem stems from the city being "caught up in gridlock arguing big issues and forgetting about our security, paving the streets and keeping them clean."
Collaboration, she said, is the not-so-secret ingredient to getting things done. Calling it the "basics of grass-roots community work," Esparza said successful models from the past -- such as forming neighborhood initiative teams to deal with area-specific issues -- can be rekindled to great potential.
"I know it can be done," Esparza said. "It's not hard to listen and respond to residents."
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.
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