September 25, 2021

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Most Asian Americans are against the recall, but some haven’t forgiven Newsom for his nail salon remark – Los Angeles Times

5 min read

Phuoc Dam has not forgiven Gov. Gavin Newsom for alleging that the first coronavirus case in California stemmed from a nail salon.

Dam, who owns Queen Nails in Brea, is still reeling from months without income after Newsom closed many businesses to stop the virus from spreading.

He marked his ballot “yes” on recalling Newsom, putting it in the mail weeks ago.

“It’s simple. He cost us our livelihood,” said Dam, 67, a Republican who moved to the U.S. from Vietnam. “We had to shut down for months and months for no clear reason.”

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Asian Americans have increasingly gravitated toward the Democratic party, overwhelmingly supporting Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the last presidential election.

A poll released Friday by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and cosponsored by the Los Angeles Times showed that 70% of likely Asian American voters are against recalling the Democratic governor.

That’s a higher percentage than white voters at 56% and Latinos at 67%. Only Black voters, at 73%, are more anti-recall than Asian Americans, according to the poll.

But in Little Saigon, opinions are more mixed. Many Vietnamese immigrants are vehemently anti-communist, which often translates into support for the Republican Party.

President Trump’s tough-on-China stance endeared him to many Vietnamese, strengthening their conservative loyalties.

Add to that the plight of business owners during the pandemic and Newsom’s nail salon remark, which was not backed by evidence, and the pro-recall contingent here is passionate.

Customers getting pedicures and manicures at Queen Nails.
Customers flock to Queen Nails for pampering pedicures and manicures.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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Nail salons, along with other small businesses, have been an economic mainstay for Vietnamese immigrants, vaulting them into the middle class.

Vietnamese-language radio and television commentators have called the Republican-led recall the “top issue” facing the state, sprinkling their reports with images of Democratic heavyweights like Vice President Kamala Harris and former President Obama campaigning with Newsom.

The Vietnamese media has tried to stay neutral, offering information on what it takes to mount a recall while highlighting the “optimistic” mood among Democrats as well as Republican efforts to topple the status quo.

Larry Elder, the Republican frontrunner to replace Newsom if the recall is successful, has courted Asian voters by attacking the governor’s business shutdowns and highlighting how Asian American students have been hurt by affirmative action.

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But Elder, a conservative radio talk show host with roots in South Los Angeles, has not caught on broadly among Asian Americans, either in Little Saigon or statewide.

The UC Berkeley poll showed 23% of likely Asian American voters selecting Elder for question two — the lowest of any ethnic group.

Dam, who has owned his nail salon for more than 20 years, said he left the second question blank because he is not familiar with the challengers.

After reopening last fall, his salon is down from 22 employees to 10. Customers are still fearful of outings like manicures and pedicures that require sustained indoor contact, and some workers are reluctant to come back, he and other salon professionals said.

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Dam pointed to the French Laundry incident, when Newsom was caught violating his own coronavirus restrictions by dining with several other families at an expensive restaurant.

“I tell you, the governor was partying without a mask with his friends while telling us to wear masks,” Dam said. “He made it appear as if the law doesn’t apply to him, and this is not what people in Little Saigon respect. They respect the truth.”

At a small rally organized by Vietnamese recall proponents last month in Westminster, manicurists demanded that Newsom be ousted for not publicly apologizing that he and his staff made a mistake in May by singling out a nail salon as ground zero for the coronavirus.

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Some passed out fliers with images of Newsom unmasked, to show that he flouted his own safety guidelines. Others gave interviews to radio and television reporters, detailing the huge financial losses they suffered after their salons closed.

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, California was home to 11,000 nail salons, with 80% owned by Vietnamese Americans, according to the Pro Nails Assn.

Experts say the backlash against Newsom in the Vietnamese community is not surprising.

“Certainly, there’s a sense of insult to the community when a core group of its members has been portrayed negatively like this — especially when that community historically has leaned toward the Republicans” because of the party’s consistent anti-communist messaging, said Sara Sadhwani, assistant professor of politics at Pomona College who has researched voting behavior with an emphasis on the representation of racial, ethnic and immigrant communities.

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Sadhwani said that while Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Indian Americans and Korean Americans have steadily leaned toward the Democratic Party, Vietnamese Americans often have followed a different path.

In a poll conducted a few months before the 2020 presidential election, Vietnamese Americans were the only Asian group to support Trump over Biden.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks to supporters in Little Saigon,.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks to supporters during an Asian Rally for Yes Recall at the Asian Garden Mall in Little Saigon, Westminster, on Sept. 4.

(Ringo Chiu / AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, Elder hopped onstage at the landmark Asian Garden Mall in Little Saigon, trashing the governor’s “draconian” state shutdown.

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“A good third of all small businesses are gone forever,” he said. “Many of those businesses are owned by racial minorities.”

Manicurist Cathy Nguyen showed up because she was deciding how to vote. Nguyen, a Republican from Garden Grove in her 40s, said she was intrigued by Elder’s “open honesty,” especially on crime and anti-Asian violence.

At a Tuesday press conference, Elder, who is Black, criticized the media for not highlighting the race of anti-Asian hate crime perpetrators, many of whom he alleged were Black.

Nguyen said she “appreciates that this is a man who highlights the race of the perpetrators of crime when sometimes, politicians are afraid to mention race.”

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But plenty of Vietnamese American voters are against the recall. Graphic designer Jessie Nguyen, a Democrat, is trying to persuade family and friends to vote “no.” Their attraction to Trump makes it an uphill battle.

“People want to be Trumpists” and do as Trump “would do,” she said.

Watching fellow pingpong players rocket the ball back and forth at the Orange County Table Tennis Assn in Fountain Valley, Vinh Tran said Newsom has handled the pandemic “beautifully.”

The state is still thriving economically and offering opportunities for immigrants, so there is no need to boot Newsom, said Tran, 57, a chemistry professor who is not registered with a political party.

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“He did what needed to be done to keep us safe,” Tran said.

Hang Nguyen, 55, of Santa Ana, has been anti-recall from the start.

“No governor has been as visible as Mr. Newsom on fighting COVID,” said Nguyen, a restaurant manager, while in line for quail eggs at Bao-N-Baguette in Fountain Valley. “He deserves to be at the head of the state.”

Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Julia Wick contributed to this report.

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