Leading By Example

Tuesday, November 3rd 2020

It’s a brisk October night. Precinct chairs of Travis County are gathered near the West Bull Creek Greenbelt for their last executive committee meeting before the November election. Anthony Nguyen steps up to a microphone to lead the assembly through the Pledge of Allegiance. He's grown accustomed to amplifying his voice. As the Republican precinct chair for District 161, Nguyen works to get more Conservatives elected to local offices in what is traditionally a Democratic stronghold.

“To be a Republican means to believe in Conservative principles of limited government, free enterprise, strong defense, strong family values,” he says. “If I had to pick one of those principles, it's about being free. And as an Asian American coming from Vietnam, that's why I immigrated, that's why my parents immigrated.”

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Travis County Republican Precinct Chair Anthony Nguyen speaks with other Republican precinct chairs at the Travis County Republican Party’s executive committee meeting on Tuesday, October 20, 2020. Nguyen is the precinct chair for District 161.

Since 2016, Nguyen has served as one of Travis County's 92 Republican precinct chairs. It’s one of the many jobs he does in an effort to be civically active, including serving as the president of the Texas Asian Republican Assembly. Founded in 2013, the group aims to politically engage the growing Asian American community in Texas.

“It's about building that initial connection with people. And then it's not about telling you to vote for this person,” Nguyen says. “It's about, alright, why do we believe in what we believe after we have that initial connection.”

According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S. electorate. More than 11 million Asian Americans will be eligible to vote this year, making up nearly 5% of the total electorate. While Nguyen admits getting Republican candidates elected in Travis County is an uphill battle, he believes the values of the Republican Party appeal to many Asian Americans.

“If you listen to the media, you know, we're Asian, we're a minority. We should be this way, but not in my family circle. It's different,” he says. “Granted, you know, they were struggling in this last election cycle with the top candidate, but in general, they still believe in the core values of the Conservative Party.”

Nguyen and his family fled Vietnam in 1975 when he was 2 years old due to the Vietnam War. Nguyen’s mother, Dzung Nguyen, worked for the government, so she was able to get her family out of the country early in the conflict. His father, Son Nguyen, was a major in the South Vietnamese Army and had to stay behind. The family remained separated for 15 years.

An estimated 125,000 Vietnamese refugees evacuated to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon. Since then, the Vietnamese population in the country has nearly doubled every decade between 1980 and 2000. Now, about 1.3 million Vietnamese Americans live in the country, accounting for 3% of the nation’s population.

“I was too young to really understand the Vietnam War that I asked her [my mom]. Why did you decide to pick up our family with a 2 year old and a 1 year old?” Nguyen says. “Why did she want to do that? And she simply said she wanted to live in freedom. She was afraid of the Communist government.”

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From left to right: Anthony Nguyen, his brother, Dominic Vu Nguyen, his sister, Helen Nguyen and his mom, Dzung Nguyen. Nguyen and his family fled Vietnam in 1975 due to the Vietnam War and settled in upstate New York.

This history has impacted many Vietnamese Americans' view of American politics. According to the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, Vietnamese Americans are the only Asian American group surveyed that leans more Republican. Approximately 38% of Vietnamese Americans surveyed said they identify as Republican, while 28% said they identify as Democrat.

“There is a group of Vietnamese Americans that immigrated from Vietnam around the 1970s and 80s. And they're generally more pro Republican because Nixon welcomed us in with open arms, allowed us to assimilate and spread throughout the country. So because of that, even with all the baggage that Nixon had with impeachment and everything, he still allowed us and invited us in. So a lot of people were just, at least my generation, for Nixon, and he was a Republican. So we all became Republican,” Nguyen says.

But it was more than just that first experience that shaped Nguyen’s political views. After fleeing Vietnam, the Nyugen family settled in upstate New York. Nyguen’s mother worked three jobs, often leaving him, the oldest, to care for his two siblings.

“We didn't have a lot of money, and so I, as the oldest, kind of took care of the family from eight years on while she worked almost 12 hours a day,” he says. “She did instill a good work ethic that you have to go to work. You can never miss. You know, I was one of those kids who always had perfect attendance in school and just being sick was never an option. It was just, you always got to do your responsibilities and work hard and play by the rules to succeed in life.”

Soon, that sense of personal responsibility started to shape Nguyen’s political views. In 1982 Ronald Reagan ran for president against Walter Mondale. Nguyen was just 10 years old, but he recalls his school had a mock election for students.

“I remember the teacher asked me, ‘Who do you want for president?’ And I said, ‘Reagan.’ She said, ‘Why?’ And I just said, ‘I want to cut the deficit because I felt that we should all balance our budget. We should all live within our means,’” he says.

Nguyen now lives in Pflugerville, Texas. He’s lived in the city for 10 years and got his start in local politics after attending his neighborhood’s Homeowners Association meeting.

“I went to the first HOA meeting and within a few months I was elected to the HOA board here in Pflugerville,” he says.

That first HOA meeting was the start of Nguyen’s years of Texas political service. After the 2016 election, Nguyen really started to get involved. He became the Republican precinct chair of District 161, which is in northeast Travis County, and started working on the City Council.

“The City Council got to know me and appointed me to boards,” he says. “I'm currently the chair of the Board of Adjustments in the city of Pflugerville and they appointed me, or they nominated me to the Travis Central Appraisal District Board.”

He also started working with the local chapter of the Texas Asian Republican Assembly. The organization had been active in other Texas cities and Austin was just starting to create its own chapter at the time.

“I joined up with another Asian guy, Jayant Sheth, who was starting this Texas Asian Republican Assembly in the Austin area. I went to his first meeting. It was just me and him. And he said that he'd had three meetings and participation was down and he was thinking about shutting it down. And I was like, well, ‘Do you have a mailing list? Do you have a Facebook page? Do you have a website?’ He's like, ‘No, no. I don't know how to do this,’” Nguyen says.

With a little bit of marketing, Nguyen was able to grow the organization. The Austin chapter now has about 40 members. That initiative helped Nguyen rise in the ranks of the organization. Today, Nguyen is not only president of the Austin chapter, but the statewide organization as well, which has about 200 members. But he admits he was reluctant at first to join the group.

“I was like, ‘What is Texas Asian Republican Assembly? Why would we want one?’ We're not about identity politics, right? We're not like the Democrats that have a Hispanic group and a women's group and all LGBT groups. We pride ourselves on individual responsibility and believing in our principles. So initially I was very reluctant,” he says.

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Rajesh Agny (left), Anthony Nguyen (middle) and Dushant Reddy (right) leave campaign literature on doors in the Avery Ranch neighborhood on Saturday, September 26, 2020. The three men spent the morning block walking in an effort to get Asian Americans to vote for Republican candidates.

But he now understands the power of a Conservative group aimed at Asian Americans.

“They say perception is reality. And I'm very well aware that the Democratic Party, they have the minority vote,” he says. “The Republicans have been stigmatized as mostly older white men because that's the perception, right? And if people see that they believe in that.”

That’s why Nguyen says he will continue to do this work. Ultimately, he hopes he can lead by example.

“If I can break a certain perception and show that Asians can be Conservative, can be Republican, and Asians can be outspoken, that that will change the minds of a lot of people. Right? And that's what leadership is about,” he says. “It's inspiring others to do things that they might not ordinarily think they can be. So to the impact that I could have on others, that shows that I can lead that way. I'm happy to do that. I think there's more people out there like myself, and by showing them the way I hope to inspire others to follow in my footsteps.”

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