Tri Ta laughs at the suggestion he’s a celebrity in his community, even though, seemingly, every Vietnamese American media outlet has called him for an interview.
“I never call myself any star,” he says, sitting in the lobby of a local public television station where he was just interviewed. “I’m only a humble person, and I love to serve people.”
Ta, 39, says that’s why he ran for City Council in the Orange County city of Westminster six years ago, and why he ran for mayor. He beat businesswoman Penny Loomer in November, thanks to nearly unanimous support from Vietnamese Americans and the backing of longtime Mayor Margie Rice, who is retiring.
Westminster is home to the Little Saigon neighborhood, and has the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the nation – about 35,000. Orange County is home to nearly about 190,000 Vietnamese Americans.
Most of them emigrated to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Ta didn’t arrive until 1992, at the age of 19, when his father was granted political asylum.
“He wrote some book against the communists. That’s why they imprisoned him for many years,” Ta said with little emotion. He’s repeated the story many times.
Ta earned a degree from Cal State, L.A. in political science and worked for a state assemblyman. But for the past six years his day job has been managing editor of a bilingual trade magazine for nail technicians. He says it’s estimated that three-fourths of nail salon workers in California are Vietnamese women.
Ta does his own nails: “I’m a simple man.”
“Given that they’re a refugee population who came here en masse 30 years ago, it's pretty significant that they’ve been able to get involved in electoral politics in such a short period of time,” says Lo, who wrote “Mobilizing an Asian American Community.”
In Orange County, Vietnamese Americans sit on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, on local city councils and have served in the state Assembly.
It should be noted John Tran was mayor of Rosemead, but it was a rotating position for council members. So Westminster is the first city to elect a Vietnamese-American mayor.
Most Vietnamese American politicians are Republican – a fact that fails to capture the changing political mood of the community. The anti-communist fervor that drove them to the GOP remains, but only about a third now register Republicans.
People are realizing Democrats aren’t “a bunch of communists,” especially younger U.S.-born Vietnamese-Americans, says Hao-Nhien Vu, former editor of Nguoi Viet Daily in Westminster and author of the blog Bolsavic.
“We don’t have the kind of strong party affiliation like people who for example, their parents were Democrats and their grandparents were Democrats, so they are Democrats,” Hao-Nhien Vu said.
The Westminster-mayor elect says Republicans have done a poor job reaching out, and the party’s anti-immigration rhetoric annoys him. But the GOP is still the best match for Tri Ta.
“I believe in the principals of the party,” he says. “I believe in family values, I believe in more freedom in business. I believe in less government control.”
Ta takes over a city facing a deficit and layoffs. He hopes to attract more business, and with it tax revenues to the city of 90,000, which sits south of Long Beach off the 405 Freeway.
His wife Ahn Dohn, a pharmacist, sits with him during the interview. They wrote a book of poetry and philosophy together. She offers him advice, based on their mutual love of Yosemite.
“When we go hiking, it’s not to conquer any peaks, but it’s actually to conquer ourselves – be patient to get to the summit,” she says.
Ta nods his head. Patience has led him places. He is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and hiked to the top of Mount Whitney.
“Its the highest mountain in the lower 48 states!” he said.
Later, Ta quotes the great Greek philosophers. He notes that Aristotle said good leaders must merely follow the law, but Socrates and Plato had another idea.
“They came up with the idea that a good citizen must be a good human being – that not only you obey the law, but you must be honest to yourself, and to your family, and to your community,” Ta says.
Complete honesty could pose problems for a politician.
“I totally recognize that,” Ta says. “But I want to believe that philosophy and will continue to carry that philosophy until the end of my life.”