Minh Duong, a 31-year-old furniture store owner vying to oust City Councilmember Madison Nguyen from her seat representing District 7, got a huge boost last month when the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce gave him its endorsement.
Duong says that winning the ChamberPAC’s support was a huge shock, even to him. Before this election season, the ChamberPAC consistently supported Nguyen, even backing her in her 2009 recall campaign.
“Honestly, before I entered their interviews and debates and whatnot, I thought to myself, ‘Regardless of how well I perform, I may not get it, simply because of the dynamics of the incumbent versus challenger,” Duong says. “But I think that being the candidate that I am, I really resonate with the direction of the Chamber. I am very blessed and honored.”
This is the second time Duong has run for San Jose City Council. In 2008 he lost a try at Dave Cortese’s old District 8 seat against Rose Herrera. Now he’s setting his sights on District 7, which he says is his real home.
Duong moved to San Jose from southern Vietnam at age 11. Growing up in a single-parent household, he says, he was taught strict discipline and “family values.”
He attended William C. Overfelt High School, where he was elected president of five different clubs and eventually graduated as valedictorian. He then got a scholarship to UC-Berkeley, where he was elected to the student body senate and earned a degree in economics.
After forays into dotcom startups and real estate, Duong founded his own business, MHD Home Furniture and Décor. He later expanded the store to two locations that his wife now runs.
Having achieved the “American Dream,” Duong says that the knowledge and ethics he’s gained from running small businesses prepared him for the budget issues the City Council faces.
“I understand what it takes to start a business, and more importantly, what it takes to turn a profit and having to meet a payroll,” he says. “That’s what really sets me apart from the incumbent.
“The way I see it, it’s just like providing excellent customer service, if we were to convert public service to that model.”
Chamber of Commerce president Pat Dando recognizes that the endorsement was a shocker, but says Duong’s consistent business-centric approach stood out.
“That’s pretty unusual for anybody to not endorse the incumbent—it doesn’t happen very often,” Dando concedes. “But, quite frankly, just looking at Madison’s voting record over the past year, she had clearly not been a real friend to business.”
Pat Sausedo, the Chamber’s spokeswoman, points to several key votes Nguyen has made over the past year, particularly the fact that she opposed Mayor Chuck Reed’s recent city salary and benefit reduction plan.
“It’s just been a consistent, methodical lack of support. There is just no alignment with her thinking and what the business community feels is necessary, particularly in these very, very difficult recessionary times, to get the city back on track.”
Sausedo says she was impressed by Duong’s commitment to economic development. She liked his ideas about fee reductions to get individuals to grow their businesses.
“He’s clearly given this a lot of thought, about how we can do things differently to drive jobs and business expansion and retention here. We did not hear any of that out of Ms. Nguyen’s comments throughout the entire process.”
For her part, Madison Nguyen is mounting her third election campaign in five years, and the stress is showing. Every weekday at 3pm, after work at City Hall, she drives over to her re-election campaign offices to figure out how, once again, to keep her spot on the City Council.
Sitting in her offices on Parrott Street, Nguyen looks exhausted as she munches on microwave popcorn and talks about walking her district.
She says that the upside of the Little Saigon controversy is that now she is more well-known than her three competitors.
“We hear that all the time: ‘Didn’t I just vote for you?” Nguyen says. “The 2005 campaign was very contentious. The 2009 recall campaign was very contentious too. So, now, that’s part of the advantage I have.”
Though she is the only sitting San Jose City Council incumbent who did not get the ChamberPAC’s endorsement, Nguyen says she wasn’t too surprised. Still, she points out that she did vote in favor of downtown business tax incentives.
“I was the deciding vote on that, it was five-five, and I voted to support the small businesses,” she says. “So I would assume that, by that vote, it would really tell the business community that I was their friend. So I’m not really sure why the Chamber chose to endorse my opponent, but that’s their decision.”
The fact that’s she’s got the backing of the South Bay Labor Council, police and fire unions, the Democratic Central Committee and Reed himself is also probably letting her sleep at night during this election season.
Still, she’ll have to split the Vietnamese vote with three other candidates: Duong, recreation program specialist Vietnam Nguyen and businessman/chemist Patrick Phu Le. Insurance specialist Rudy Rodriguez is also in the District 7 race.
Duong says the fact that he grew up in the district, and therefore speaks English, Vietnamese and a touch of Spanish, will work in his favor.
“I grew up eating tacos and burritos and speaking ‘habla espanol’ and ‘mucho amigos,’” Duong says. “That’s the kind of environment that nurtured me, and that’s the connection, the understanding culturally, and understanding linguistically, that really sets me apart.”