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Demographic Changes Chip Away At Orange County's Conservatism


In California, the Democratic candidates are fighting to the finish. The race has gotten very close between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Now, it's true Clinton has already sewed up nearly all the delegates she needs to clinch the Democratic nomination. But if Sanders does win in California, that could hurt Clinton going into the general election.


In the next few minutes, we'll hear from a man who is a supporter of Bernie Sanders. He also embodies the changing demographics of one Southern California zone many Americans think they know, Orange County. So let me ask you, David, the O.C., what instantly comes to mind?

GREENE: I'm thinking sunshine. I'm thinking surf. I'm thinking conservative?

MONTAGNE: Yes, conservative. Well, meet Bao Nguyen, the recently elected mayor of the O.C. city of Garden Grove who's now running to fill a congressional seat in Orange County's 46th district. And his life story fits right into today's O.C.

BAO NGUYEN: In 1980, my parents decided to leave two of their daughters behind with relatives in Vietnam while my mom was eight months pregnant with me in the womb. And they escaped Vietnam illegally in the middle of the night and boarded a boat with many other folks. And when we finally saw the shoreline, we saw people along the shore holding weapons.

And thank God, these Thai Buddhist monks in their saffron yellow robes, they made a human chain into the water and pulled our boat in. And the first night, we slept on the floor of the Buddhist temple.

MONTAGNE: One month later, Bao Nguyen was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. His Vietnamese family eventually made it to America. And by the time he started school, they had settled down in a very white, very right Orange County.

NGUYEN: I remember my first day of kindergarten. The teacher asked me how to pronounce my name. And I said, my name is Bao. And she said, Bao like bowwow (ph), like a dog? And all the kids busted out laughing. And so she asked me if it was OK if she called me Bob? So I said, no. (Laughter) And, you know, I guess I just had that in me.

MONTAGNE: Much has changed since Bao almost became Bob. In 1990, about two thirds of Orange County was white. These days, more than half the county is nonwhite.

NGUYEN: It's a community that's very diverse. We have a lot of Arab-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, Latinos certainly so (laughter) - it's also a landing pad for a lot of refugees from the Middle East - certainly, those from Southeast Asia.

MONTAGNE: Bao Nguyen counts himself as a progressive, running for what is now a Democratic seat where the stiffest competition may be among the Democrats this year.

NGUYEN: The implication for politics is that we find a lot more folks registering Democrat. As a matter of fact, just because of this year's size of the population of Orange County, we have more registered Democrats in Orange County than San Francisco.

MONTAGNE: I think that will be surprising, even to someone like me who lives here in Southern California. And you are one of the few elected officials in California, Democrats, who has come out in support of candidate Bernie Sanders.

NGUYEN: That's right. Feel the Bern. We're really excited that we have a candidate like Senator Bernie Sanders. He's demonstrated that he is someone who is honest and truly cares for people over the interest of big money and politics. And we've seen so many people be energized by his candidacy. And he's been able to bring folks in. And we're not going to stop there.

MONTAGNE: Well, beyond who you would like to see as president, what are your big issues?

NGUYEN: People care about immigration reform. We need a pathway to citizenship. We need to bring people out of the shadows. I personally don't think that we should be building walls. We should be bringing families together.

MONTAGNE: If it doesn't go as people who support Bernie Sanders are hoping, I mean, if, in fact, Hillary Clinton is, as is expected, the nominee, would you actively support her?

NGUYEN: You know, I'll cross that bridge, you know, when I get there.

MONTAGNE: And that is Mayor Bao Nguyen, Democratic mayor of the city of Garden Grove, Calif. He's running in this primary as a Democratic candidate for one of Orange County's congressional seats. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.