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Left Or Right?
Politics is a very polarizing topic. But we live in times where our rights should be protected, and many of us have the desire to exercise them. So when something isn’t going the way we want, what can we, as individuals, do? Former Mayor of Garden Grove, CA, Bao Nguyen, explains that we actually have a lot more power available to us than we realize.
Every Journey Begins With A Single Step
Bao tells us his incredible story, from being born in a refugee camp in Thailand with no citizenship to any country, to his run as Mayor for an American city. He is living proof that ordinary people have the power to create lasting change, and encourages us all to step up and really put our values into practice. After all, actions speak louder than words.
As an outwardly gay Mayor, Bao had his issues with backlash, but rose above them gracefully and continues to support the LGBT community. Being a grateful and humble refugee himself, he also sees the need for compassion and respect for all human beings in all walks of life. He even invited the Dalai Lama to Garden Grove and named it a City of Compassion, to which His Holiness now holds the symbolic key. Pretty cool, right?
If Not You, Then Whom?
Running for office can be a costly venture, but there’s no need to panic and start fundraising just yet! Bao recommends we start locally – like, at home – and then move into positions on local council boards, such as the school’s PTA or your Homeowner’s Association. He also stresses that when it comes to creating change, building strong relationships with your local folks as well as the politicians in the area is vital. As the old adage says, to get far, we must go together.
– Welcome back to The Urban Monk. I’m happy to be in studio with a real person, hanging out, talking about politics, local politics how you can get in moved and also you know what is needed to get involved in politics and actually make change. With me in studio is the former mayor of Garden Grove, which is right down the street from us, Bao Nguyen who has just stepped down in December and is not in the political arena now, so we can sit down and kinda take stock of what happened, what went wrong, and talk about how the younger generation can get involved, so hey welcome.
– Thank you, thanks Pedrom. It’s a pleasure to be here.
– It’s great to have you here. It’s, you know, it was funny, the first time you were here visiting, you saw the Tibetan mandala behind you, and you were like this thing is not facing the right direction. I’m like how do you know about that? So you did Tibetan studies.
– That’s right, in Colorado at Naropa University after UC Irvine.
– So what an interesting place to go.
– It’s beautiful.
– It’s all over that town if you’ve ever been to Boulder. Obviously, if you’ve ever been to Boulder, it’s all over, is like this university of Tibetan Buddhist studies.
– Right, right.
– Yeah, very cool. So you became mayor of a pretty large city. How many people are in Garden Grove?
– It’s about 180,000 people.
– That is a lot of people. That is a lot of people. And so, what drove you to do it first and foremost?
– Well I wanted to make sure that we have a government that serves people, and at that time, the mayor before me had this big scandal, and I didn’t think it was okay because my motivation to go into politics is really from where I come from. You know, politics is what brought me to this country. I wasn’t born in the United States. I was born in a UN refugee camp in a Doctors Without Borders clinic, had no citizenship to any country whatsoever, and what caused my parents to risk everything, become refugees is because of bad government, so I wanted to see that in America, we have good government, so that’s what motivated me to run.
– Wow, and so you get shown that set the example of bad government right ahead of you, and you get this righteous indignation. You said, damn it, I’m going to do this?
– Yeah because no one wanted to challenge him. He had been in office for 22 years, and people were so afraid of him. He was very entrenched. He was an institution within himself.
– [Pedrom] Wow, and so, okay, so how old were you at this time?
– I was 34.
– Okay, you’re a 34 year old adult, but still on the kid side of adult, right? Like that’s still pretty young, and you’re going up against this guy who’s been running Gotham City kinda thing, right? And so what do you do? How do you go about saying okay I want be mayor? Like do you have to go start raising money?
– You do, you do. You know, it’s funny. Initially, I wanted a four year term rather than a two year mayor term, so I opened up a committee and started raising money for city council, and I spoke with folks, and it was really hard to raise money, and the existing politicians in my party were not supportive, and no one really supported me. They said no, stay on the school board. You know, that’s where you should be, and I was like okay.
– [Pedrom] Play small.
– Yeah, I was like alright, alright, so I closed my committee, I went to Asia, went to Vietnam, went to Angkor Wat, and I came back home, and I said, you know what, I’m just gonna run for mayor, and it shocked people, and I had to strategize on when and how to get in and on the ballot because you know politics is very much, you know, identity politics too, so I got in, and I made sure that I was the only real opponent to this guy, and I worked hard, built the relationships, raised money, hustled, ’cause I remember getting attacked during the campaign, and I had to pick up the phone and call my friends to say hey, can you give me a thousand bucks? I need to respond to this, and I literally ran around collecting checks, and then sent it to my treasurer, and then helped design the piece and push it out.
– And fought your way up, and then, like so did you win by, what kind of margin did you win by? Was it a tight race?
– I won by 15 votes.
– [Pedrom] Come on.
– I did.
– In a city of 180,000?
– Oh that’s great.
– And there was a recount, so I won twice.
– Nice, so someone who was, okay so you were on the school board, so this wasn’t your first step into politics, but you had just kinda gotten into politics.
– Right, so I started as a community organizer. I was inspired by Barack Obama and his story and when he was running in 2008, Sarah Palin said what is a community organizer anyway? So I said, hey well, I’ll look it up, and I found that there was a community organizing organization right here in Orange County with the same roots or lineage of Barack Obama and Saul Alinksy and of liberal progressive politics in Orange County, and I got the job, and I cut my teeth there, changed policy in Orange County, secured a senior transportation program of about nearly half a million dollars for my city, and I felt that I could do it. You know, it’s possible when people come together and they want to see policy change, and it can happen.
– It’s funny ’cause this last election, there was this big brown book, and so you’re looking at it, and I’m trying to be a good citizen and reading up on stuff, and on half of them, I’m scratching my head saying who the hell wrote this ballot thing anyways? Like what is this? And who decided that this was going to be something that I have to vote on right now? And so someone did it, a person or a group of people are involved in politics and they’re doing it, and so it’s the same kind of energy, right?
– Right, right, but this is a little bit different on a local level as opposed to a statewide ballot measure. That’s a lot of money.
– Bigger, yeah. How much money did it take to raise to like fight this fight, out of curiosity? Like people think it’s so cost prohibitive.
– You know for my mayoral race, I personally raised about $100,000, but that, you know, that doesn’t count you know the folks that helped in what we call independent expenditures and is uncoordinated with the candidate, so folks did their own mailing and their own field work while my campaign, you know, focused on our strategy, so it’s probably much more than that if you count all the other things that were done.
– [Pedrom] All the energy that went into it.
– In addition to, and money, in addition to what I had to do.
– So you have, you become mayor, and you were mayor for four years?
– [Bao] Two years.
– You became a two year mayor.
– It’s a two year term.
– Okay, and so you go into this, and that at some point, you drop this kind of bomb that you’re openly gay.
– Right, right.
– [Pedrom] In a culture, at least, that’s not supportive of that.
– [Pedrom] And so what the hell was that like?
– You know, it was really exciting because I’ve never felt I’ve been closeted, you know, so I’ve always been very openly myself, so when the US ambassador to Vietnam was in town, and he had a town hall with members of Congress, he’s openly gay, he’s married, got kids, Ted Osius, and so I felt that since all of the media was going to be there, you know L.A. Times, Orange County Register, O.C. Weekly, and all the Vietnamese ethnic media, print, radio, television, so I said this is a good time to let everybody know you know?
– Wow, you came out at a press conference.
– Pretty much, you know, I asked a question, I thanked Ambassador Osius for his work and really you know representing LGBT community folks, too, in leadership.
– How hard was it at that point? Did you have pushback from your Vietnamese community, for any community like did it change your relationship with people?
– No, people who know me, you know, know. I think coming out is really interesting because you know I look at it intellectually and think well, what am I coming out of? And if I’m coming out of something, then what am I going into? So if I’m going into something, then shouldn’t there be more coming out, so coming out was like a constant thing. It’s like you’re always coming out. I mean, when are you really truly yourself, right? Or truly you, you know? It’s kinda hard to tell.
– There’s the Buddhist training right there.
– But, it was challenging because there were some folks. I had already known actually that there were folks out there who didn’t like me being an elected official and who I am, so they went around and told folks that hey, you know Bao is gay, and that’s supposed to hurt me somehow, and it got back to me, and I said, so what? You know.
– And? And you know, later on, I found that some folks felt that in the Vietnamese community that it was too much, that they had to have an emergency meeting. I don’t know what came about.
– They had an emergency meeting over you being gay?
– Yeah, right, isn’t that hilarious? So I thought it was really funny, but if you look at how the community has progressed, particularly on the issue of LGBT equality, just a couple years before that, the LGBT folks who were marching in the Vietnamese New Year parade had been barred from marching in the parade. I forget, just a couple, a few years ago, and when I was on the school board, I led the protest from the school board, and we had boycotted the parade because they barred LGBT folks from marching in there, and the year after that, they were able to be in the parade again, which is really important. So, you know, change can happen pretty rapidly, but I think what’s really important is the human to human connection so people know, what is a gay person. I mean you’re interacting with one or more, probably every day, you know? So, they’re human beings.
– Yeah, surprise. They’re amongst us, you know, and they’re among our families, and I think that’s really important when we take the understanding of what are our family values and not let certain people have a monopoly over defining what family values are, and we can progress in that way and let people understand that you know, everybody deserves respect.
– So you are under the umbrella of Barack Obama’s progressive administration while all of this was kind of happening, and the climate has changed somewhat, the tone has changed, and things have really kind of taken a very interesting turn politically. What’s your fear for LGBT people now coming into politics and all of it? I mean there’s so much.
– You know, I think that there’s always work that needs to be done on a policy level, and right now, because of the new or different environment that we’re in politically under our new president, it’s important that everybody gets involved and pushes. I mean it’s, the strange thing is, sometimes, it’s these kinds of events that galvanize and unite people, and we can make a lot of gains as well. So I know it’s quite depressing to see the hey we didn’t have our choice, but we have each other, and now, it’s clearer that we have each other more than ever.
– It’s funny as you look at some of the membership and the dues and just money raised by say like the ACLU and a bunch of these different.
– Mhm, right, yeah.
– There is so much money going into civil liberties now. There is so much money being kinda earmarked for people to protect these rights, these liberties, right, and so it’s funny the word liberty is something everyone fights over, you know, and so the right thinks they’re the patriots, right, and the left thinks that they’re obviously the patriots, and so there’s all these words that the founding fathers had that everyone’s fighting over saying who’s the right thing, and somewhere in the middle is probably, you know, reality, right, and so politics is so damn polarizing, how effective is it? For me, I just want to see trees in the future, I want to see clean oceans, you know, I want to protect civil liberties. There’s a lot of things, you know, personally that, you know, I would want for my children’s children and the future of the planet. A lot of people in my generation and like the Millennials behind me have kind of given up on politics. How much hope is there? How ugly was it?
– You know, first of all, I don’t blame folks for giving up on politics, you know, it’s intimidating, and a lot of times, we don’t feel that we can make an impact, but I can say that we can make an impact, a huge impact. I was organizing senior citizens in Garden Grove when I was a community organizer. It was a group of just about five of us, and we created a huge policy change, so I think it’s definitely possible, and I think start local, you know, people say all politics are local, and there’s a lot of truth in that. You know you gotta build the relationships, you know, one of the key principles I learned from being a PICO community organizer is that power is in the relationship, so we have that already, but how do we deepen that? And a lot of that is listening and identifying what our values are and how do we translate that to what we desire in policy, which is you know in the public sphere, so.
– But it’s so out of reach, right? Like you have the politicians over there, and you have the civilians over here, and people just have it like, you cross that over. You went into the school board. You did the community stuff, then you went to the school board, you’re like, you know, you go off on your walkabout, and you’re just like screw it, I’m just gonna be the mayor, right? And so you took that leap of faith, but a lot of people don’t even see that they can get involved on that level, so if I’m just like you know in my hometown going yo I don’t like something I see, what are my first few steps to really get things moving?
– Well talk to your family first. You know, I think having your family support is really key. I think growing up in a big family helped train me to be engaged in the community and then be engaged politically. I think being involved in your local PTA, your local service organizations, that’s all very important, and I think at some point, you’ll see that you can impact policy by running for office, whether you win or not, you know, so do it, and run, and it’s a test. It’s a test, it’s a challenge, you know, and you really grow from it.
– How much exposure do you get on that public why you’re campaigning and canvassing? Like do people show up? Is there, you know, some sort of radio broadcast, like how are you getting your voice heard ’cause I guess we’re gonna talk about money in a minute?
– Yeah, yeah, I was just gonna say, right? It’s money, yeah.
– It’s money.
– It’s money. Quite frankly, it’s money, and even a grassroots efforts involves a lot of money.
– So you gotta got to friends and family.
– [Bao] Yeah.
– Sympathetic people.
– [Bao] First people you go to.
– Friends and family.
– And you then you basically say open up your checkbook, I want to do this, and there’s obviously no return on investment other than someone who has, you know, kind of shared ethos.
– Right, so that’s your love money, so even if they don’t have, you know, shared political, shared politics, they would donate and give, and that love money is like a one time deal. It’s kinda like a good luck thing, and then you have that, then you put on events, and you build relationships with other political interest to accomplish, you know, your fundraising goals.
– So walk me through this just because it’s so foreign to me. Like, alright I want to go be the mayor of my town because I’m a lunatic, and I don’t actually want that, but if I want-
– ‘Cause only lunatics run for mayor.
– No, I got too much shit going on. I got too much shit going on, so let’s assume Pedrom wants to run for mayor, and then I go, okay, I’m gonna do fundraiser dinner, and then who do I, like, I want to connect this, right?
– You can do this ’cause you’re on the phone a lot, and a lot of us being on the phone, and you ask people on the phone to make a commitment.
– You say, you know what, I’m gonna be running for this position, $1,000 please?
– I really want to set up a road map for people who want to do this.
– Yeah, yes, for your family and friends, you know, I mean you would have to identify what their capacity is to give to you as well ’cause you want to ask for a certain amount.
– A reasonable ask.
– Exactly. You don’t wanna get too crazy, or even you know ask for a low amount, you want to ask for a proper amount, and you gotta make all those calls.
– Where does the money end up going? TV, print, radio?
– TV, print, radio, online, field, software, candidate statements, all kinds of things, transportation, snacks, volunteers, office space.
– So for you at this level, it cost X amount, what’d you say? A couple hundred grand? Whatever it is, it cost this much money, and you get in there, and you obviously, you know, the way democracy works is then you don’t technically, you don’t owe any of these favors back right? You’re supposed to then go do your job, right?
– Right, right, right.
– But is that actually how Washington works, right? I’m really trying to understand.
– I don’t know, you know.
– You gotta keep it clean.
– I’ve only been an intern for a White House initiative when I was in college, so how Washington works, it’s probably yeah.
– So on the local level, on the local level, you do it, you have a fair shot, you have a voice, and the more media exposure you get, the more people get to know about you, and then they vote.
– It’s not just media exposure. It’s building the relationships with key individuals and organizations and being out there having face to face conversations with real voters. That’s really important.
– So to get the endorsement of say like the head of the school district means something, carries weight.
– The teachers’ union, that carries a lot of weight, or the classified employees.
– And so basically you go around shaking hands, making friends, getting endorsements to build your base and build your.
– Right, so you want to get endorsements from organizations, you have to fill out questionnaires, so that lets the organization know your policy position on their particular interests.
– Got it, and then they look at that and say yes or no we like this guy or not.
– Right, and they might have their own consultant to analyze you know the political environment and see whether you’re viable or not, and then, you know, they’ll make that determination.
– How competitive is it? I mean are there lots of like really good, high quality people running for most of the positions out there in like major cities, or is it, like who’s there? Like who are you canvassing with?
– You know, I don’t think it’s that competitive actually. I think we really need to develop more candidates to have a democracy that is reflective of our communities, so it takes somebody that really wants to go out there and serve and have an understanding of the community that’s really diverse ’cause you’re in a unique position as a candidate as well. You’re going to everybody. People are telling you what they care about. And you have this bird’s eye perspective that most people just don’t, so I think you’ve just gotta have that drive.
– What did you try to do, and what happened, and what got stonewalled, what would you have liked to have happened in your two years?
– As mayor?
– [Pedrom] As mayor.
– Well I accomplished a lot as mayor in my two years.
– [Pedrom] Let’s hear it.
– I led the transition in city leadership, executive level leadership, the city manager, so I led the transition with hiring the interim city manager and also setting the criteria and leading the search and the recruitment and hiring of the permanent city manager who’s there now.
– So how does that affect me as a citizen in the city?
– It does because that’s like the CEO of a city.
– [Pedrom] City manager is the CEO of a city.
– That’s right.
– And so what does the city manager do? Basically runs all the operations of the city?
– That’s right, that’s right.
– Or calls the shots really, he’s the COO?
– Well, the CEO, or let’s call him the city manager, let’s not, yeah, ’cause it’s different than a business or private entity, so the city manager is in charge of implementing the policies of the city council, so and that means making sure that the budget has oversight as well and all the operations, and also leading a team of executive leaders, so city directors of public works, community services, the police chief, the fire chief, et cetera.
– So you gotta orchestrate all that, make sure everyone does their jobs, follow the will of the people through the city council, and then go and execute and actually make sure the city runs.
– [Bao] That’s right.
– So you brought a city manager, you transitioned a new city manager in.
– That’s right.
– [Pedrom] Cool, what else?
– So I led that transition very smoothly. Also held the city accountable for the issues that were there from the previous mayor.
– Okay, so the thing that you were pissed about, you came in and started to clean up and fix.
– That’s right.
– And you feel good about the changes you were able to make.
– I do ’cause they are lasting changes.
– [Pedrom] Great.
– And you know we restored the public confidence in the city, which is really important.
– [Pedrom] Great.
– So in addition to that, I also invited his holiness, the Dalai Lama, to our city, and he celebrated his birthday with our city as well, and we declared Garden Grove a city of compassion, and I presented him the key to the city, and he gave us a little talk, it was very inspiring, and that sets the tone for what we do in a city, to say that we’re a city of compassion, and we’re such a diverse city. We have diversity not just ethnically, racially, but also religiously, you know, age, et cetera, so it’s great so say that compassion is a value for our city.
– So you have 180,000 people. How does it break down in terms of basic, like just general ethnic lines?
– It’s about a third Asian American, a third Latino, and a third Caucasian. We also have the Christ Cathedral in our city which is, I believe, it’s the largest Roman Catholic facility outside the Vatican in Garden Grove.
– Yeah, we also have the largest mosque in the region in our city as well, and it’s the Islamic Center of Orange County, Islamic Society of Orange County there, and all kinds like Buddhist temples and so many different religious faiths, so we have the Interfaith Council that’s very active in our city, and so many things going on. It’s important to say that we’re here to serve everybody, and you know with what’s going on nationally with folks being scapegoated or being targeted, it’s important for us to say that we stand together, and that we’re a model for that, and we’re not afraid.
– And a city can do that. Cities have been doing that recently.
– [Bao] Right.
– And been taking stands.
– [Bao] Right.
– Right, and so that kind of local governance versus state versus federal and all that is an interesting conversation that’s now really becoming emergent. It’s interesting like in the last kind of political climate, Texas was like Obama enemy number one, like every time Obama had something, it would be like we’re exercising our states’ rights, you know, you’re crossing over, this isn’t a federal jurisdiction, this is state, and now that Washington has switched, now California is playing Texas, right, and it’s doing the same type of thing back to Trump’s policies, and it’s a real interesting look at American politics, you know, the union and actual where the rights fall, so how much rights do cities have? Like you know if you want to say like I want to do city stuff, but it’s not big enough, you could actually make serious changes there in people’s lives.
– Absolutely, often times, you know, your city government, your local municipality, your school board, your water board has greater direct impact on your life than national government, federal government because you see the impact. Your pothole is going to get filled or not. That’s a city issue, right? Your school’s gonna be safe or not, your kids are gonna have a good education or not, that’s.
– [Pedram] Local level.
– A local issue.
– More people going into this would be awesome. One of the challenges is people coming out of college have debt, right? You get out of college, and you’re like, damn I gotta pay all this stuff back, and so it’s not a lucrative career.
– No it’s not, it’s not.
– [Pedrom] Right?
– It’s not at all.
– So you go hustle up all this money that goes towards getting into a position that doesn’t really give you, and so there’s obviously a lot of, you know, bad apples being created like corruption in politics wherever that is.
– It’s everywhere at all levels.
– At all levels, yeah, from city, from homeowner’s associations. I see it in just like these power plays in my homeowner’s association. We’re like really dude? You’re playing that out here? Like chill out, right? I’m sure all the way up to the White House, right? And everything in between, people are people, right? So, how do we get more people involved, right? I mean there’s enlightened self-interest, right, like I’ve got a family to feed, and so either I have to wait until I’m independently wealthy to do this, or I have to take a real pay hit to do it.
– Yeah, you do, you do take a real pay hit to do it, or you’re independently wealthy, and you know, I encourage people to do it for the right reasons, for service.
– [Pedrom] Sure.
– And you know it’s a sacrifice. It’s a real sacrifice. I thank people for serving.
– Is that why you think less Millennials are getting into this? Because you get out, you gotta make a life for yourself, you gotta build and so, it’s, you know, you’re not at that phase in life. It’s usually older men and women who’ve run a few miles?
– Right, right, I think so. I think we don’t have access, you know, as younger people to the means, and also, we have our own obligations, whether it’s student loans, or.
– [Pedrom] Rent.
– Rent, you know we have it, you know we’re in different situation than the previous generation too on how the economy has impacted our generation so.
– Absolutely. Well, every generation can I guess say that, right?
– [Bao] Yeah.
– From the Boomers on, but the climate’s changed, but you know, I know that there’s a lot of kind of people that don’t represent the population in positions of power and things are being kind of shuffled around right now. Just now, the federal court maintained the freeze on Trump’s immigration ban, so now it’s like the judiciary versus the executive, you know, and so there’s so much that’s happening that affects people’s lives that people feel powerless about. You stepped up and did something about it. You became an elected official. You became a mayor, and you decided, well you know what, talk is cheap, and you did it. I would really love to get more like minded people of anything, just people who are interested in a better world into the political system ’cause to me, growing up it was always relegated to like sociopaths and corrupt people, like we didn’t go there, right? Like that’s my generation. It was like politics is dirty, so I’m not going to touch it, except it runs my life, right? So what was your advice be to people trying to make a difference? Community activism first?
– Just do it. I mean, try it. You know, run for PTA president or president of your home owner’s association. You’ll serve, and make sure that your purpose for serving is clear and your intentions are clear, and that you don’t stray from that. That’s what I’d like to see. I can’t say that is what’s out there ’cause it was really hard for me to be mayor. There are folks that didn’t want to support things that were common sense just because they didn’t like me, so.
– Because you flip.
– You have to deal with that.
– ‘Cause you flipped the old bad guy?
– Yeah, exactly.
– So there was entrenched oligarchy kinda energy in there.
– So you gotta deal with that.
– I have a friend who just stepped down as mayor of another town, and he said to me that anything beyond the level of mayor, you’re pretty much 100% bought because all you’re doing is running around taking care of your patrons and trying to like do favors back to get in, and he thought it was so ugly he had to get out. You see any of that ugliness upstream? Like ’cause you ran for office. You ran for, recently, you ran for Congress.
– That’s right.
– What the hell was that like?
– It was a lot of hard work. It was really exciting too, and it got people really excited for my candidacy as well. It also helped me raise issues that were important to our community, but yeah, the struggle of raising money is real, especially at a federal level.
– You gotta raise a lot more money.
– [Bao] Right.
– To play that game.
– [Bao] Right.
– What are the dynamics of that? Like are we just talking like bigger fundraisers, like more expensive suits at this thing? Or is it a whole different ball game?
– I think it’s a whole different ball game. It’s more you know who the players are in Washington, you know, in the Beltway, and you know who they want to support, how they determine viability. It’s also something that is very much about identity politics, so the demographics,
– What do you mean?
– So the demographics of the district I ran for was predominantly Latino, and I made it in the primary, barely made it into the general, you know.
– [Pedrom] So you’re on ballot.
– I placed second in the primary, also on the ballot on the general for November, and I barely made it in, and the person who was the front runner is a Latino person, candidate, former state senator, and so there’s a lot of that identity politics going on.
– How much of it was the actual district voting versus, ’cause you were representing a district, but I mean everyone’s voting for Congress, so how does that work?
– People that live in the district that you’re running for get to vote, you know, in that race you’re running for, so you know I’m not a Latino, and you know it’s hard for me to raise enough money when there’s someone so entrenched and established who has the Spanish surname and to let folks and voters know how we differ ’cause that requires so much money too, send mail home and buy radio ads and newspaper.
– And your name isn’t stacked, you know, in your favor, your face isn’t stacked in your favor. It’s just yeah, got it. So and you could’ve waited, so if you had like a more Vietnamese district come up down the line.
– Would that make sense?
– Possibly, possibly. You know, I represent a different generation in the Vietnamese-American community as well. I’m a liberal, Democrat, and a lot of folks in the older generation are more conservative, and they vote Republican, and when I ran for mayor, folks attacked me and called me a Commie. My opponent called me a Commie, and that’s.
– It still happens, huh?
– It still happens, but it’s really insulting because I was born in a refugee camp because we couldn’t.
– [Pedrom] Running from the Commies.
– Running from the Commies, so it’s kinda like what people are saying about the refugees today.
– You know? So not very cool.
– It’s funny ’cause we had a guest on the show talking about the history of marijuana and how it was called marijuana because in the 1920s, there was this same type of galvanized nationalism happening, and they needed an enemy, so they said it was the Mexican immigrants that were gonna come in and rape your wife and children and like take everything, so they took cannabis, and they relabeled it marijuana to make it sound more Hispanic and demonize it and started a drug war just to shift and get the votes and you know the power structure that they had, and so we’re in an interesting climate, but simultaneously, okay so we’re like in California, and you know Trump takes the election, and so now we have a conservative president, but then all of a sudden, marijuana has become legalized for recreational use in this state.
– [Bao] Right.
– And so it’s like this pendulum is opposite swinging for different issues all over the place. I know you’ve gotten involved in some marijuana politics, or cannabis politics it’s called, right? What’s that like? Like what does that world look like?
– Yeah when I was mayor of Garden Grove, we had to address the issue of these dispensaries that were operating without a license in our city, and we didn’t have a regulatory structure for these businesses, so I wanted our city to implement regulations, to improve public safety, to make sure that, you know, it stays out of the hands of kids and those who should not have access to it, so I was moving forward with that, and then you know things changed on the council, and it got shut down. People didn’t want to move forward with that.
– And so what? They just locked it down and said we don’t want this in our city?
– They voted to stop the task force that I was heading, and they said we want to keep the ban, so.
– No dispensaries in our town.
– No dispensaries, no cultivation, no anything.
– We don’t want to touch it, so cities in these states that have voted, let’s just talk about California, so in California, a city can say not in our house.
– Right, right.
– Which means you can recreationally use marijuana, but you can’t sell it ’cause you don’t have a permit to sell it.
– Right, with prop 64, it’s decriminalized, so there is that for people who consume it in their home, that’s their right, and for folks who want to do business and sell medical marijuana or recreation in January 2018, if cities do not grant you the license, then you don’t have the right to do that, and you would be operating illegally.
– [Pedrom] Got it.
– So to me, that would create a black market as it has, and we’ve seen that.
– Which is not taxable.
– And it’s not taxable, and you know, it creates all kinds of troubles in the community, in the neighborhoods for the city, and it’s a cat and mouse game with the cops and these unlicensed operators, so that’s why I think it’s so important to regulate ’cause we see how the regulation of alcohol has really made it more difficult for minors to get their hands on that controlled substance, so I think it’s really important that we have sensible policies on medical cannabis and recreational cannabis.
– Colorado has been at this a little longer. From what I’ve seen, the data is pretty solid on you know use in teens hasn’t really gone up, violent crime hasn’t gone up, there’s money coming in, there’s tax dollars that are actually starting to flow. I mean, you’ve been looking at this closer than I have. How rosy is it?
– Well I think we can learn a lot from other states that have done it before we did. You know I think it’s overall a thing that local governments should regulate because you gotta have some kinds of controls in place. Otherwise, you know, you’re not really helping, you’re not really addressing the issue if you say okay, I think it’s evil, we should just have a full ban on it, then that’s not being open to how policies in other cities or other states have been successful, and also if you continue to study the data on those who use cannabis, medicinally or not, we see that there is a drop in usage of prescription drugs as well, especially opiates, and those are the drugs that have, cause a lot of death in America. A lot of ODs. We don’t see that with cannabis, so I think it’s really important when we see that there are veterans out there who use cannabis to treat their PTSD and other issues, we see that there are kids with seizures, folks with severe Parkinson’s, all sorts of ailments, so whether we want to say it’s okay for us as an individual, or one as an individual to use or consume, I don’t think it’s very American to tell other people that they shouldn’t have access and safe access to what alleviates their pains and conditions, medical conditions.
– Well that’s kind of the tip of the spear, this whole movement, really, was the medical benefits that really started to kinda outweigh the costs of whatever, you know, were perceived as the challenges with this, and so recreational’s kind of a different thing, but then we go back to liberties, right? American has freedom and liberty, and it stands for certain things, then if you’re not bothering me, then you know, maybe the government should stay off of this.
– Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s why I’m here in this country.
– You know, so you mentioned that you grew up in a refugee camp.
– I was born there, yeah.
– [Pedrom] Where was this camp?
– It’s in Thailand, it was in Thailand, yeah.
– So okay, give us a quick history. This is basically after South Vietnam falls.
– Everyone’s gotta go, you got out right before?
– No, no, no, so the first wave of refugees from South Vietnam were those that were evacuated in 1975.
– Like hung onto the helicopters kinda thing.
– Exactly, yeah. Folks that.
– The pictures we.
– That had relationships with the American effort et cetera, and then the second wave were boat people, and we were boat people. Well technically I was a boat fetus ’cause my mom was eight months pregnant with me in the womb.
– [Pedrom] Wow.
– When they escaped in the middle of the night.
– How long was the new regime in place?
– Five years, 1980.
– Okay, so they’re solidly under Communist rule at this point.
– And they said we gotta get the hell out.
– Right, right, so.
– And it’s bad enough to put an eight month pregnant woman on a boat.
– Knowing that half the people who had escaped by boat didn’t make it, and we almost didn’t make it actually. We were hijacked by pirates multiple times on the way to Thailand, and when we saw land, we noticed that there were people on the shore holding weapons and guns and knives.
– Bandits or like law?
– Bandits and not letting us land. So it was at that moment that the people on the boat, they thought about breaking the boat apart and drowning rather than being killed, and they were really freaked out. They didn’t have anything, they were tired, they were sick, starving and thirsty, and at that moment, while the sun was going down, these Buddhist monks who had a temple nearby, they saw what was going on. They came down and made a human chain down to the water and pulled our boat in and protected us and gave us refuge in their temple the first night, so.
– Come on. Wow and so the bandits just like backed off?
– Well you know, Buddhist monks in Thailand are you know highly revered.
– So they were the untouchable.
– [Bao] Yeah.
– So you get human chained by Buddhist monks, compassion, onto the shore, you go into the thing for the first night, and then there’s some sort of through.
– And in the morning, yeah, we were processed into the refugee camp, and then a month later, I was born.
– Refugee camp is in Thailand.
– [Bao] Yup.
– Established by the UN?
– [Bao] Right.
– Okay so you are born in a refugee camp.
– At a Doctors Without Borders clinic. So my birth certificate is this small, it’s handwritten in French, Medicins sans Frontier, and yeah.
– How long were you there?
– My family was there for four months. I was there for three months, outside of the womb.
– And then at that point, you get transferred to?
– We took a Pan Am flight to New York. We were processed there, and we were settled in Nashville, Tennessee. Then when I was about four or so, we took a Greyhound out to California.
– And so that’s it? You don’t have any brothers or sisters? You said you had a big family.
– Two of my sisters were left behind with relatives.
– In the old country, got it.
– And then they met up with is five years later, so I remember the day when they came over and meeting them for the first time.
– [Pedrom] How did they get out?
– By boat as well.
– [Pedrom] Same thing.
– [Pedrom] Wow.
– I don’t think that boat people that wave ended until maybe even the early 90s.
– So it was just like an Underground Railroad of refugees kinda thing.
– Yeah, exactly.
– Wow, wow.
– Coyotes and all that, yeah.
– Yeah, and so, you now, were the mayor of an American town, so it’s like the ultimate story of like refugees and race and you know all the global problems kinda splashing on the beach of America and what that looks like, and so here you are giving back, trying to make this a better place and fighting corruption.
– Well giving back and also not forgetting where I come from and seeing how today’s current events are directly related to what got me here, my family here, and to really honor those sacrifices of not just my parents’ sacrifices, but all those that have sacrificed their lives at times to make what America is today, and you know, I recognize that so many other folks have fought for the liberties that I have today, you know, and fact of the matter is when the Vietnamese refugees were being considered for resettlement or taken in to the United States, a lot of folks said we don’t want them. There could be Commies there. Our enemies lies amongst those refugees, and I’m very grateful to President Carter as well for accepting more refugees at the time even though in that climate in America, the Vietnamese refugees were looked at in a very negative light, and I believe it was worse than how we view Syrian refugees today.
– That was important for folks like me or other Vietnamese Americans to share their stories and to voice their solidarity with other refugees. And these are people who have been victims of terrorism.
– Horrible, horrible crimes.
– And it’s a part of who we are as a country. You know, I don’t see my parents boarding a boat and setting sail much different than what the English did to escape a tyrannical king.
– And when you look at the founding fathers of this country, they fought and bled for liberty and some really amazing things that still stand today. And this is where things get really cloudy because I’ve had a lot of conversations with people on the red side, right? And I get it, man. I totally get, I mean their ancestors bled for the liberties, and they are seeing the deterioration of what’s great about this country, but the political climate is demonizing people and creating enemies out of things that I think is really confusing the matters because you’re a liberal, right?
– [Bao] Yup, yes.
– Talking about America and its liberties and what’s so great about America. This doesn’t sound any different than a conversation I had in a gun store two months ago with a guy with a big mustache, right? So we’re not that far apart on this, right?
– We’re not, we’re not.
– [Pedrom] We’re not, we’re not.
– And I get that idea of you know wanting to protect the second amendment. I get that idea because people were afraid of tyranny, of you know, government going bad.
– Government was bad. That’s why they left.
– Exactly, so I get it. I get that’s why that’s in our Constitution, but I think we have a different structure today, and what gun, I guess, advocates are wanting is beyond the imagination of what our founding fathers have put into the Constitution.
– [Pedrom] So.
– I mean, how much time does it take to, you know, make your musket, you know pack your gun powder in, and I don’t think they had in mind that people should have rights to automatic assault rifles. I don’t think that’s what our founders had in mind. I think having checks to make sure that our government does not abuse its power is really important. Does that involve guns today? Or does it really involve being engaged politically and making sure that our representatives are representing us?
– So here’s my stance on this, is to me, the last line is the guns, obviously, right? If all else fails, you go and you become a militia and you fight for your rights, and you try everything before that obviously. Obviously, right?
– And you defend your family, but if I got a guy with a semi-automatic or automatic rifle coming into take away my liberties, and I have the equivalent of a musket, then that battlefield has now been really skewed, and I’m at a dramatic disadvantage, so I get it. I get both sides of it, right? So if the government has tanks and bombs, I need at least this and that to defend myself, and it’s just, it keeps escalating into something that gets really carried away.
– The government has nukes, so does that mean that everyone should have nukes? If they wanted?
– Well, I mean, that’s the global.
– I hope not.
– Right, but that’s also where non-proliferation comes in. The fact that everyone has nukes means that we haven’t been using nukes, so if you knew that Americans like, you know, good luck trying to invade America. It’s got one of the largest standing armies in the world, right? A bunch of guys with guns that will stand up and be like this is my land, and there’s something really powerful about that, but I think, again, all of this has gotten really skewed and hatred and bitterness and all this stuff against you know immigrants has come in in a country of immigrants.
– I mean, unless you’re Chumash Indian, you’re an import in the place we’re sitting right now. I’m an import. I’m a refugee, as are you, right? And I don’t care if you’re 10 generations deep or however far that goes, you know, Irish, you still came from some country, and you came away from some thing, so this country was built on immigration, and it’s built on liberties, and it’s built on compassion. I love the fact that you went and did this, and I hope that you would continue in the political sphere to keep pushing this, right? Like people like you are needed in politics.
– Well there are a lot of people like me out there. I’m sure many of them are your viewers, and I encourage them to get involved as well and to put their values into action. I think that’s really important.
– That’s really the take home message, really, is take your values, get involved locally, step up, if not you, then whom, really? If not you, then whom? You gotta do it. You gotta step up and step into it, so I look forward to watching your career and supporting what you’re doing, and I thank you for sharing.
– Thank you Pedrom.
– It’s been great. Let me know what you think. I’ll see you in the next show, Dr. Pedrom Shojai, the urban monk.