By Amy Taxin
The Associated Press
WESTMINSTER, Calif. (AP) — John McCain’s heroism during the Vietnam War and his efforts in Congress on behalf of Vietnamese refugees are being repaid in a small office wedged between a taekwondo studio and stock trading firm in the back of a strip mall.
The modest setting in the heart of the country’s largest Vietnamese immigrant community is ground zero for efforts by Vietnamese Americans to elect the Republican presidential candidate and, at the same time, increase their political influence.
The Little Saigon Outreach Center is the first presidential campaign office the California Republican Party has funded in this immigrant hub, state party spokesman Hector Barajas said.
It’s reflective of the reverence many in the Vietnamese community feel toward McCain.
Joan Le, 25, is a McCain volunteer who has been going door to door for the GOP nominee. The daughter of a South Vietnamese veteran who fought alongside Americans, Le left the Communist nation with her family when she was 11. She’s now a college student.
“He is the one who helped Vietnamese veterans come to America with their children and wives,” Le said. “He made a big difference to our lives.”
Truong Quang Si, a veteran of the Vietnam War and Republican loyalist, keeps a 1981 photograph of himself and McCain on his desk.
“This is our duty. This is our chance to pay back our dues to him,” he said. “The Vietnamese, when we owe someone a favor, we keep it for our whole life.”
A Navy fighter pilot, McCain was shot down in 1967 during a bombing mission over North Vietnam. He suffered serious injuries when his plane crashed and was repeatedly tortured during more than five years as a prisoner of war.
After returning home and gaining election to the U.S. House and then the Senate from Arizona, McCain became a leading voice for Vietnamese Americans while pushing for normalized U.S. relations with the Communist Vietnamese government. He also spearheaded efforts to help refugees’ relatives reunite with their families in the United States.
“I came here under his amendment,” said Thuy-Nha Tran, 52, who is eager to vote for McCain in her first presidential election since becoming a U.S. citizen last year. “I think he understands our families.”
While California is expected to vote for Democrat Barack Obama next month, McCain’s history makes him a favorite son in the community known as “Little Saigon,” located in the heart of conservative-leaning Orange County.
A telephone survey in August and September showed 51 percent of Vietnamese Americans nationwide planned to vote for McCain and 24 percent for Obama, marking a contrast from other Asian American communities, which all preferred the Democratic candidate.
The Vietnamese American community is becoming more politically active. In Orange County, a group of Republican officials led by Assemblyman Van Tran, R-Costa Mesa, opened the Little Saigon Outreach Office last year to ramp up voter registration and community services, such as help filling out forms to start a business.
Tran, a longtime McCain supporter and the first Vietnamese American elected to the state Legislature, said it’s logical for Republicans to fund the office in Little Saigon during the presidential campaign since voters there helped McCain in the primary.
But the California GOP-funded voter registration drives and phone banks aren’t just about helping McCain. They’re about harnessing Vietnamese American enthusiasm for the candidate in the hopes the party can lure younger voters who grew up in the United States.
“It is a great emerging community and an emerging community in the electoral process,” Barajas said. “One of the important things for us as we go not just into this election cycle but the next cycle is to start building coalition groups, to start building these networks.” ♦