Interview by Sharon McElhone
When residents ask Madison Nguyen what makes her different form the candidates who are running for Mayor of San Jose, she says the answer lies in her life experiences, which include an immigrant past. As a child, Madison came to the United States on an overcrowded fishing boat.
At the time, her family were refugees fleeing a Communist government. She spent her childhood summers picking crops in the fields of the Central Valley then went on to graduate from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Chicago. She served as a Councilmember for District 7 for eight years and then became the first Vietnamese American woman to serve as Vice-Mayor under Mayor Chuck Reed. She has held that post for two terms. Those life experiences have given Madison an unshakable belief that courage, leadership, and accessibility together can overcome any odds.
– What do you think needs to be done in order to restore San Jose’s title as one of the safest cities in America?
“I would focus more on prevention. Because a lot of the things here, whether it’s property crimes or minor crimes, all that adds up. When these public safety organizations look at this data that is how they sort of quantify whether or not you are in the top tier in regards to public safety. So we held the safest big city title for five years from 2001 to 2006, and then we lost the title from 2007 to now. So I want to be a mayor that is going to bring back that title, to have San Jose become the safest big city in America. If we can do it for five years, there is no reason we can’t do it again if we focus more resources.”
– Do you have plans to improve the downtown area? What plans do you have?
“No matter how attractive some of the other areas are in San Jose, for example Santana Row, I think we definitely need to focus a lot of our attention on Downtown, and that has a lot to do with making people feel safe so they can frequent the restaurants and the arts and cultural facilities. I see elected officials trying so hard to make sure the downtown is attractive. I’m going to make sure to focus on boosting economic development downtown, taking care of the homeless issue, so people feel safe when they are occupying the restaurants and clubs and retail. I will definitely try to make downtown a destination when people come to San Jose.”
– What is your position on the high rents we’ve seen in the last six months and do you foresee a time when the middle class can’t afford to live in San Jose?
“I’ve always been a big proponent of affordable housing. I think under the leadership of Mayor Ron Gonzales, we were able to build over 11,000 units of affordable housing for the City of San Jose. But because of the elimination of the Redevelopment Agency and the recession, we didn’t have the opportunity to build more affordable housing at the rate that we wanted. We are starting to see more residential applications come in from residential developers now… it’s coming to the City Council sometime in March, housing impact fees. If you are a housing developer and you want to build a specific number of market rate housing then you will have to contribute a certain percentage toward building affordable housing. So how we are going to access the housing impact fee is going to help low-income families. It’s going to build affordable housing for them. This is a big priority of mine.”
– Do you see any problems with our water supply if our population keeps growing with the current pace of high density housing being built?
“Absolutely. We are probably in one of the worst droughts in California, and we need to continue to raise awareness and educate the public in terms of how to conserve… for a long time the water district asked us to conserve 15 percent. I think it needs to increase. We need to be conserving at 20 percent or more because if we don’t save, we are going to run out of water. This is not an issue that people should take lightly simply because they believe we live in such a prosperous city that water will never run out. I think that is a myth. If we continue to abuse the amount of water that we have, we will eventually run out. I will continue to work with the water district and some of the other private and public entities to make sure to raise awareness and educate the public to conserve.”
– Do you see how we can avoid high-density housing?
“I wouldn’t say that I don’t support high-density housing only because we have the opportunity to build really great affordable housing units with high density. And we have done that in the last eight years since I’ve become a council member; and so it’s more of a matter of what kind of housing do you want to build. When I meet with affordable housing developers, the first thing I say to them is I need to see a plan that integrates affordable housing into market rate housing. There has to be an integration of lower and middle class housing so people don’t feel like they are being separated or segregated just because they live in an affordable housing, and so the affordable housing we have now is just like market rate housing. I’ve been to at least three grand openings of affordable housing and these apartments are exactly like my condo that I paid over half a million dollars for. As an elected leader, you have the responsibility to tell the developers ‘look if you want the city to help you with a type of subsidy then you need to build quality affordable housing for people’… And that is the kind of development that I want to see.”
– How would you address homelessness in San Jose?
“Currently we have sixty homeless encampments in the City of San Jose with the biggest one called “the jungle” in my district. I represent a district that bears a lot of the burdens that we are seeing in the City of San Jose. Those burdens are starting to spread throughout the city. We have a little over 4,800 homeless individuals every night living in the creeks under bridges along trails. One of the things we did a couple of weeks ago is sign a contract with Downtown Street Team. These folks go and help these individuals, not only to get them out of the homeless encampment and get them in temporary housing, but also they have a really awesome program that gives them food vouchers. They tell a homeless person, ‘look if you want a good hot meal both lunch and dinners then I need you to commit to working four or five hours a day.’ By doing that they are starting to bring these individuals out of the homeless encampments and put them into areas they can work and then give them food vouchers. So once you start to do that, people become more accustomed to getting up everyday and going to work for a couple of hours and then hopefully that will help them transition into a part-time position or even a full-time position once they acquire the necessary skills.”
– Do you have a vision of how to bring more multiculturalism to San Jose?
“We are so fortunate to live in a city where we don’t have a single majority or major ethnic group. So the City is comprised of one-third Asian Americans, one-third Hispanic, and one-third white, so I feel very blessed to be living in such a diverse city. I think when ethnic communities have different cultural celebrations and festivities, the city should encourage that. We just had one of the biggest Lunar New Year festivals. This festival is for the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean communities, and you see elected officials attending these kinds of events. As a leader you should always try and showcase your appreciation for the different cultural celebrations in the City of San Jose.”
– What inspirations have you garnered from the successes of Mayor Susan Hammer and Janet Gray Hayes.
“When Janet Gray Hayes became Mayor, San Jose was known as the Feminist Capital of the World. I think it is a great title to have. I’m a big proponent of issues as they relate to women trying to promote them not only in professional atmospheres, but in all areas. Susan Hammer actually founded The Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force, which still exists today. It is actually the model the White House is looking at to try and emulate to see if it will work in other metropolitan cities such as New York and Chicago and cities like Denver. We actually got recognition from the White House for our model. This is a coalition of faith based non-profit organizations, the public defenders office, the DA’s office, the court system, and the school districts and the City of San Jose. We get together on a bi-monthly basis and talk about all the issues that happen in the City of San Jose and allocate what organization needs to do what. If a juvenile got in trouble. Maybe he just stole something from a store, we don’t need to put that juvenile through so many different systems. We should be able to give them a chance, an opportunity to do better and try to figure out how to help them. It’s like a wraparound service and we provide for victims. It’s a great mechanism to prevent crime and also intervention when something bad happens in our neighborhood.”
– If you become Mayor of San Jose, what do you think your biggest concerns will be?
“The top priority is to restore services to the police department. Given the fact that we have seen such a huge influx of crimes, whether violent or property crimes. We’ve seen such a huge increase, and so we need to take care of that. We also have a lot of police officers leaving due to the pension reform issue that was passed by the voters… A lot of the components that were in measure B, we are reaping about 20 to 25 million dollars a year from some of those components and so the city is poised to start hiring more police officers. My priority is to restore more police officers and restoring the burglary unit. The reason I want to focus a lot on restoring the burglary unit is because homes are being burglarized everywhere. It’s not just in central San Jose, but also in more affluent neighborhoods such as Willow Glen and Almaden. We need to make sure that police officers respond when citizens call. I can’t imagine being traumatized by being burglarized and then calling a police officer, and they say sorry we don’t have the manpower so we can’t come out there for five or six hours or the following day. That needs to stop.”