Get Out the Vo

Before Asian voters flooded the polls, nobody gave an unknown Vietnamese-born Democrat a chance to upset one of the most powerful Republicans in the Legislature. Houston, we have a new political landscape.

June 2005By Comments

WEDGED AMONG THE KARAOKE BARS, orchid shops, halal butchers, sari stores, dim sum restaurants, taquerías, African groceries, Zen meditation centers, and Persian rug dealers that line Bellaire Boulevard in west Houston is Sally Jo’s Old Houston Bar-B-Que. Sally Jo’s is one of the last Anglo-owned businesses on this stretch of Bellaire, and anyone who stops in for the $6.95 brisket plate can sense that the restaurant’s time has passed. In the afternoons, after the lunch rush, it is quiet inside except for the gurgling of the deep fryer. A photo of John Wayne hangs on the wall, above the red-checkered tablecloths. Across the street—where red pagodas mark the entrance to the vast Hong Kong City Mall parking lot—are Arab women in white head scarves and long black abayas; stylish Vietnamese women, a few of whom shade themselves with parasols; West African, Filipino, and Pakistani couples with children in tow. The most popular bumper sticker on the cars parked outside the mall is red, white, and blue and reads “God Bless America.”

Sally Jo’s has served barbecue on Bellaire since the Carter administration, when Alief, as this pocket of west Houston is called, was overwhelmingly Anglo and Republican. (In 1976, 78 percent of the electorate voted for Gerald Ford.) Dairy farms still dotted the landscape then, as did the new subdivisions that appealed to whites moving out of Houston’s urban core. Alief’s demographics began to shift in the late eighties, when the city’s growing Asian community was drawn to the suburbs for the same reasons that whites had relocated there a generation before: safer neighborhoods, better schools, larger lots, and cheaper homes. As immigrants moved in, whites began moving out, pushing farther west to Katy and south to Sugar Land. The exodus has been dramatic: 61 percent of the area’s residents were Anglo in 1990, compared with just 34 percent last year. Now it’s easier to find a bowl of pho in Alief than it is a hamburger. Some of the street signs have been embellished with Chinese characters. Japanese pop songs drift out of passing cars, and at the Bollywood Cinema 6, the feature films are in Hindi. Alief has become one of the most diverse places in Texas; more than sixty languages and dialects are spoken in its school district alone.

Not coincidentally, one of the Democratic party’s few success stories last November came out of Alief. Republican incumbent Talmadge Heflin, who had represented District 149 in the Texas House for eleven consecutive terms, was ousted by Hubert Vo, an unknown Vietnamese American businessman. Vo had been a long shot from the start. He had never run for public office, he had no fund-raising experience, and he delivered his stump speeches in a pronounced accent. By contrast, Heflin enjoyed widespread name recognition in Alief after 22 years as its legislator. He had the backing of Kay Bailey Hutchison, Tom DeLay, and other high-profile Republicans. As chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, he had no difficulty finding donors; by Election Day his campaign had outspent Vo’s by more than three to one. But Vo ran a better campaign, using ethnic radio stations to disseminate his message and a multilingual block-walking operation to get out the vote. Although he won by the thinnest of margins—a mere sixteen votes after a recount—his victory confirmed what Houston political strategists and demographers had been predicting all along: As the suburbs grow more ethnically diverse, Republican candidates will have to redefine themselves to stay relevant.

With whites moving out to the exurbs of surrounding Fort Bend and Brazoria counties, Vo’s campaign could provide a blueprint for Democratic candidates who see opportunity in the Houston suburbs. Even Republican territory that seemed impenetrable a few years ago now appears to be in play, including Tom DeLay’s congressional district, whose northern border, the Fort Bend County line, is the southern boundary of Vo’s House district. “By 2010 Alief will be less than twenty percent Anglo,” says Richard Murray, the director of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy. “The same racial and ethnic tide is moving toward Sugar Land, and it will make DeLay vulnerable.” The change is plain to see; on a recent drive through the congressman’s district, I came across a gold-domed mosque and a Hindu spiritual center before I saw any master-planned communities. DeLay received just 55 percent of the district’s vote in November, running against an obscure Anglo candidate—and that was before allegations of ethics improprieties became front-page news. Seeing an opening, former U.S. representative Nick Lampson has announced that he will challenge DeLay for his seat in 2006. Houston city councilman Gordon Quan, a Chinese American immigration lawyer, is considering a run as well. Whoever secures the Asian vote will be the likely winner.

IN AN ELECTION CYCLE THAT PUNDITS believed turned on “values,” Hubert Vo’s life story seemed to have particular resonance. The oldest son of seven children, Vo was nineteen when Saigon fell to the communists, in 1975. His family fled, and after a ten-day boat journey across the South China Sea, they sought asylum at a U.S. naval base in the Philippines. Eventually they arrived in Lubbock, where a Methodist church sponsored their stay. Vo moved to Houston in 1977, and despite the first-class education he had received in Saigon—he was schooled at French lycées and majored in economics and political science in college—he could find only menial jobs. He put in long hours as a busboy, waiter, short-order cook, phone book updater, steel worker, and cashier. (As a convenience store clerk, he was robbed at gunpoint—twice.) He went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Houston and helped support his family by working the graveyard shift at Hughes Tool, where he made drill bits. In 1985 he borrowed $20,000 to start Microland, a direct-sales computer wholesaler. The company made him a millionaire before he turned forty.

Vo, who is now 48, had always dreamed of running for office, so he watched with interest when Heflin was challenged in 2002 by a Vietnamese American political neophyte named Andrew Tran. With just over $40,000 to spend and virtually no ties to the community, Tran still managed to get 45 percent of the vote. By January 2004, Vo had decided to run. He focused on issues with broad appeal in Alief—creating economic opportunities for small businesses, reducing college tuition, preserving the Children’s Health Insurance Program—and studied up on public policy. “At first, Hubert would go into excruciating detail when he talked about the issues,” recalls his campaign manager, Karen Loper. “He would always step on his applause lines, because he wanted to explain every last nuance of CHIP.” The glibness of American politics did not come naturally to Vo. He was ill at ease when he had to boast about the hardships he had overcome, and he struggled to deliver a popular line from his stump speech—“I came here with nothing but the shirt on my back”—with conviction. When he posed for his official campaign portrait with his wife and children, his staff had to plead with him to smile. “I wanted voters to see that I am a serious person,” Vo told me.

“Immigrant voters got Hubert, and they knew he got them,” says Mustafa Tameez, Vo’s Pakistani-born political consultant. “Whether they came from Vietnam or Mexico, they knew that he understood their lives on a level that Talmadge Heflin could not.” The Vo campaign worked hard to reach this constituency, beginning with a massive block-walking effort last summer. Vo visited 2,500 homes in predominantly Vietnamese neighborhoods, while volunteers fanned out across Alief to talk to registered voters, many of whom had never been approached by a political campaign before. “If Urdu was the native language of the person who opened the door, we had someone who spoke Urdu who could tell them why they should vote for Hubert Vo,” says Tameez. The campaign also appealed to voters through ethnic radio stations, of which there are more than a dozen on Houston’s AM dial, four in Vietnamese alone. Vo began hosting a weekly call-in show on Radio Saigon Houston to field questions about the American political system and discuss the campaign issues. There were also letter-writing parties, like the one Tameez’s mother-in-law hosted in which five hundred notes were penned mostly by Pakistani and Indian Americans to prospective voters. “Essentially, the message was ‘From one South Asian to another, here’s why I’m voting for Hubert Vo,’” says Tameez.

Vo’s campaign cast Heflin as hopelessly out of touch with his district, an impression that Heflin hardly helped dispel when he became entangled in a custody battle over the child of his Ugandan housekeeper. Alleging neglect, Heflin and his wife, Janice, argued in court that the boy would be better off living with them. “We all know the terrible problem that black male children have growing up into manhood without being in prison,” Heflin testified. There proved to be no evidence to support the Heflins’ claims, and the case was dismissed. The episode did not win Heflin any support among new constituents, nor did a legislative record that seemed out of step with the needs of an increasingly diverse district. His votes in years past against both the hate crimes bill and the proposal to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a state holiday were hard to defend in a district that had become nearly 20 percent African American. Although Heflin went through the same motions as Vo, asking for votes at the local mosque and pressing the flesh at the Hong Kong City Mall, his folksy charm had come to seem more at home on the floor of the Legislature, or in the oak-paneled Austin Club, than in his own district.

Anglo politicians who have succeeded in winning reelection in “minority majority” districts in Houston have adapted to serve a changing constituency. Representative Scott Hochberg, whose district lies several miles east of Vo’s, endeared himself to Muslims by passing a bill last session making it a crime to label meat “halal” if it has not actually been butchered according to Islamic law. This session he has tried to pass legislation that would allow for the written portion of driving tests to be in Vietnamese. But Heflin rarely made such gestures, and by last fall, Republicans were nervous about his prospects. Tom DeLay hosted a fundraiser for him, and one of the party’s most influential moneymen, San Antonio entrepreneur James Leininger, contributed $50,000 less than three weeks before Election Day. In the end, Heflin spent $365,564 to Vo’s $120,388, but he carried just 9 of Alief’s 24 precincts. Only 3 House districts out of 150 in Texas flipped from Republican to Democratic that night. District 149 was one of them.

“AS A POLITICAL FORCE, the Asian community is still in its infancy,” says M. J. Kahn, a Pakistani American real estate developer who represents Alief on the Houston City Council. “We haven’t decided yet whether we are Republicans or Democrats.” Kahn decided to run as a Republican in 2003, after Arab Americans had voted in record numbers for George W. Bush in the previous presidential election. But the political allegiances of Houston’s immigrant community are fluid, and last November a plurality of the city’s Muslims—many of them frustrated with what they perceived as racial profiling by the Justice Department after September 11—voted for John Kerry. Kahn sees the fickleness of Houston’s Muslim vote as an indication that neither party has succeeded in winning the community’s allegiance. “In some ways, we feel for the Democrats, because it is the party of minority rights and of education, which is a very, very big issue for us,” he says. “But in other ways, we feel close to the Republican party, because many of us are small-business owners, and we are conservative when it comes to our families and our religion. The challenge for Republicans and Democrats is to convince us that their party is our party. Until then, this community is up for grabs.”

Vo, who closed Microland in 2001 and now runs a lucrative real estate business, became a Democrat out of a sense of obligation to those less fortunate. “The Democratic party is the underdog party, and as immigrants, we are underdogs,” he says. “Sometimes when Vietnamese people achieve success here in the U.S., they forget how hard the road was to get here. We need to remember where we came from.” Vo is doing his part to sway Vietnamese Americans on his monthly call-in show, Life in Politics, on Radio Saigon. “Vietnamese people remember Nixon and Ford fighting the communists, so they are grateful to the Republican party,” Vo says. “Sometimes you have to work to make them see why they should vote Democratic.” Radio Saigon has tremendous reach among Houston’s 150,000 Vietnamese Americans, so much so that the station received complaints from numerous Vietnamese restaurants about a falloff in business after it began airing a popular cooking show. “Older Vietnamese people think the Democratic party is the party of gay marriage and abortion,” Vo says. “I explain those issues so they can understand them as immigrants. I say that gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose are issues of personal freedom, like freedom of speech, like freedom of expression.” In a community populated by survivors of the Vietcong’s reeducation camps, it is an astute way to reposition the debate. “I tell them that Democrats are not immoral people,” he says. “We have the same family values as everyone else.”

The growing political power of Houston’s Asian Americans may be felt in a number of races next November. DeLay’s reelection campaign will be the most closely watched, but the fate of several other Anglo Republicans, among them state senator Kyle Janek and state representative Joe Nixon, may also be in question. Janek’s district stretches from Alief to Port Arthur, which is home to a sizable Vietnamese American population. Nixon’s district is bookended by Vo’s district to the west and Hochberg’s to the east. “Both could be vulnerable if a Vo-like candidate runs,” observes political analyst Murray. Republicans, who study the same demographic data, see the potential in recruiting Asian candidates; Vo says he has already been approached by a high-ranking member of the Legislature (he won’t say who) who asked him to consider switching parties. He has grown accustomed to Republicans’ questioning his party affiliation. “They say, ‘You’re a self-made man,’” he explains. “‘You didn’t need welfare and food stamps to succeed. So why aren’t you with the Republican party?’” But Vo has no plans to switch. So far, the only high-profile Republican in Texas who is Asian is state representative Martha Wong, a second-generation Chinese American whose district includes affluent Houston neighborhoods like River Oaks, West University Place, and Bellaire. The area could not be more far removed from Alief.

THE FORTUNES of the Democratic party seemed bright on a warm evening this spring, when four hundred Vo supporters gathered at a Vietnamese restaurant downtown for a belated appreciation dinner. Chinese American city council candidate Mark Lee worked the room, as did Jay Aiyer, an Indian American city-council-at-large candidate. Against a red-white-and-blue backdrop, students from Alief high schools performed folk dances; girls in sparkling headdresses sashayed to Bollywood songs, and teenagers in white peasant skirts stomped to mariachi music. Vo’s campaign staff was as multicultural as the crowd: His Latino direct-mail consultant was there, as were his African American treasurer, his Pakistani American media consultant, and his folksy Anglo attorney (“We’d like to thank all y’all,” Larry Veselka said to the crowd with a tip of his white Stetson). Vo rose toward the end of the evening to sound the themes of his campaign and thank the audience. His 81-year-old father, who sat a few feet away, beamed. “I will not let you down,” Vo told the crowd to sustained applause. One of the last speakers of the night was Gordon Quan, the city councilman who is considering challenging DeLay. “Hubert provides hope that we can take back this state,” Quan said with a broad grin. “Look around this room. This is Texas.”

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