Taking Aim

Veteran political analyst Richard Murray's study concluded that Vo can win.

In a banquet room high in the Greenspoint Radisson, a former Las Vegas lounge singer disco-struts across the stage. One moment he's flirting with a political wife across her plate of stuffed chicken, the next he's engrossed in an endless note, clutching his Johnny Mathis hair. The act takes a welcome pause when he spots Texas legislative candidate Hubert Vo, stops singing mid-song, and says, "Good evening, Mr. Vo!" Despite the theatrics, the exchange poses little threat of leaping onto the society page.

Indeed, most would-be politicians assembled here, at the obscure campaign endorsement dinner hosted by the Asian-American Political Movement, are Democrats without a prayer, victims of redistricting, weak fund-raising and feckless speechifying. And on the surface, few appear set for a tougher race than Vo, a minor real estate mogul from Alief who has emerged from virtual oblivion to challenge one of the most powerful Republicans in Texas, 22-year state Representative Talmadge Heflin.

"The odds are stacked against me," Vo admits to the audience, dominated by Filipinos in starched barong Tagalog shirts. "And you know what? Just like many of you, the odds were stacked against me when I first came to this country, with a little more than the shirt on my back. But I beat those odds."

The applause is hearty, as one would expect from a small crowd that sees itself in the foreign-born Vietnamese-American. But in a development unprecedented for an Asian immigrant in Houston, Vo is appealing to a much wider audience -- and making Republicans sweat.

"Most people think Harris County is going to flip from Republican to Democrat," explains University of Houston political science professor Richard Murray, "but the question is when it's going to happen. Politicians like Heflin are kind of like the canaries in the mine."

And for the Democrats, Vo could be the chisel that strikes gold. The 48-year-old former factory worker and convenience store clerk has become one of the party's greatest hopes for a new beginning, in a race that reflects the rapidly shifting political bedrock in urban Texas.

Murray sees an upset in the works. "I think he's going to win."

The last time politics shifted in southwest Harris County, Vo's Alief neighborhood was still a spread of muddy cow dairies and rice paddies -- home to old farmers and fat mosquitoes. Yet by the 1960s it was rapidly becoming a desirable destination for Anglos, who were fleeing the integrating schools and spiking crime of the inner city. Like other burgeoning suburbs, this was fertile ground for the rebirth of the Republican Party.

Alief taxpayers funded new schools to serve the settlers, and Heflin rode the expansion. A former construction manager for petrochemical plants in Louisiana, he won a spot on the Alief school board in 1973 and rose to president on a reputation as a demanding right-wing purse-pincher. (One school even bears his name.) Houston annexed much of Alief in the 1970s, yet the white-as-milk school system remained a lure to the region.

By 1982, newly arrived Anglos were a comfortable majority in Alief, and Heflin made his move. He ran for the Texas House of Representatives in newly created District 149, pledging to keep taxes low and morals Christian. He won by a 5 percent margin and wouldn't face another tough race for years.

But along the culs-de-sac and strip centers of Alief's freshly minted subdivisions, the political currents continued shifting.

In the mid-1980s, the Hispanic and Asian populations in Houston were bursting at the seams. Vietnamese immigrants such as Vo -- who had poured into Texas cities in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, and later as "boat people" fleeing communist persecution -- wanted communities to call their own; north Spring Branch had already become majority Latino, and educated Chinese and Indians were looking well beyond Old Chinatown.

These groups followed Anglos into neighborhoods in areas such as Clear Lake, Sugar Land and Friendswood. One of the biggest draws was Alief. Its quality schools strongly appealed to education-minded Asians, and its modest ranch-style homes were affordable. Alief's first Asian-oriented strip center, Diho Mall, opened in 1981 and is still a good place to find sushi and an immigration physical.

Whites began emigrating from Alief in droves by the mid-1990s. Developers, who'd squeezed nearly as many subdivisions into the area as possible, had nothing left to offer, and Anglo families were demanding newer homes and well-fortified gated communities. They found them in Katy and Fort Bend County, which became the new destinations for white flight. Four months ago, Alief's rapid evolution caught the attention of Murray, director of UH's Center for Public Policy. His small office high in the central campus's Hoffman building is crammed with decades of yellowed voting district maps, which he uses to study how demographic changes will affect this year's elections in each of the city's 917 precincts. "I am particularly interested in all of this racial/ethnic change," he says, "and the epicenter of that is the Alief area."  

Alief has now become so ethnically mixed that dinner out feels like a trip to the United Nations. Visitors to the Hong Kong Mall on Bellaire can order liver-and-stomach rice soup at Choy's BBQ, but next to the crowds playing Chinese chess, the tables are piled high with mudbug shells from crawfish and beignets. Down the block, the options range from Ostioneria Mazatlan No. 3 Seafood to Al Sultan Mediterranean. And for a serious date, try the Thien Phu Wedding Restaurant. District 149 is now 36 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic, 20 percent black and 18 percent Asian-American, making it among the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation.

Although Anglos still constitute a larger portion of the population in District 149 than in the rest of Houston, their political power is rapidly plunging. They held 60 percent of the eligible vote in 1990, but their share fell to barely 40 percent by 2000. "My estimate is it will be about 35 percent Anglo voting age population by election time this year," Murray says, "and that gives Hubert a real chance of winning."

With roughly 150,000 residents, District 149 is centered on the Alief Independent School District. The highest concentration of white voters in the district is in the more recently built-out region northwest of the Barker Reservoir, which includes part of Katy.

Murray's forecast for Vo's race relies on applying historical, racial-group voting trends to the election. He says the loss of Republican-leaning Anglos is the biggest factor in Vo's district, which is part of the rapidly changing ethnic "doughnut" outside Loop 610 and within Houston city limits. Whites are abandoning the doughnut to return to the inner city or hike out to exurbia; the trend soon will leave other Republicans such as state Representatives Joe Nixon and Robert Talton vulnerable, he says, and eventually -- probably by 2015 -- will put Harris County as a whole back in the hands of Democrats, despite the Republican-led redistricting.

Rice University political science professor Bob Stein agrees. "I think what is going to happen is, even though Republicans have redrawn the districts…it is inevitable that candidates like Vo are going to win," he says. "Whether they win now or they win later, they are going to win. And they are going to win before the 2010 redistricting, because Houston and the Houston metropolitan area is the fastest-turnover metropolitan area in the country."

But through the rapid expansions in Houston's new ethnic enclaves, white Republican lawmakers have also changed -- from rookie legislators to political kingmakers.

Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick appointed Heflin in 2003 to chair the appropriations committee, making him not only the second-ranking member of the House but also an attractive candidate to political donors interested in a bigger slice of the state budget. In fact, since the 2002 election, Vo's campaign has brought in less than $60,000, while Heflin's has raised ten times as much -- nearly $600,000.

Winning against big-dollar incumbents in districts such as Alief thus requires a strategy well schooled in demographics. Blacks and Hispanics in Houston are relatively reliable Democrats, yet Asians are increasingly important political wild cards, campaign experts say. Although Asian ethnicities such as the Vietnamese tend to lean Republican, they will break party ranks to support an Asian candidate, both at the polls and through fund-raising. So in a district such as Alief, a group that has for years been political chump change is now part of a war chest.

And Vo could unlock it. He hopes to capture the Asian vote, while appealing to pro-Democrat minorities and the ever-important moderate Anglo swing voters. The diversity in Alief presents huge challenges to any candidate, says Asian-American City Councilmember Gordon Quan. "This could be David versus Goliath," he says, "but Hubert is going to have to work hard towards it. Nothing is going to be easy for him in this district."

In 1975, Vo was a 19-year-old student of political theory at a time when realpolitik in Saigon meant keeping your head down and stepping on the gas. While driving his motorcycle on the weekends, he saw a rocket explode in a subdivision and rolled past a bombed market sprayed with blood and severed bodies. When he was on the road with his father, a car blew up close enough to leave his ears numb.

"Everywhere you went, you had to look over your shoulders and make sure who was behind you," Vo says. "It was a rough life. It was just chaos over there."  

Most days he drove directly to school and studied hard; if he failed a class, he would be drafted into the South Vietnamese military. He knew from his father, a Vietnamese coast guard captain, that bribes were rampant in the government. The young Vo decided he'd rather fight for democracy as a straight-shooting politician.

But he never got the chance. As the Vietcong tightened its noose around the city, refugees clogged the streets and Vo could see planes falling from the sky. His parents decided to flee. He was rushed with dozens of families onto his father's patrol boat and set off on a seven-day journey toward a U.S. naval base in the Philippines.

A few months later, Vo landed in Tyler, Texas, with a small suitcase. The wide-eyed refugee was soon driving to Palestine to serve as a temporary translator for other new transplants. He remembers eating his first hamburger on the way ("delicious") and marveling at how the most powerful country in the world could be dotted with such unprepossessing ranch houses.

Vo's parents wouldn't be able to afford a house of their own for several years. They moved to Houston in 1977 to look for better jobs; Vo cooked in a Montrose restaurant, and his father started as a janitor at a machine shop. Then Hughes Tool hired father and son on its assembly line to make drill bits for oil rigs. Vo soon enrolled full time at the University of Houston. But he stayed on at Hughes Tool, working from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and pitched in his salary to support his mother, brother and sister.

"It was tough," says Vo. And hard work was the solution. "I usually met my production an hour, two hours ahead of time, shut down and then studied."

Vo graduated from UH during the early-1980s oil bust and couldn't find work. He decided to enroll in the Control Data Institute to study computers, and after a few months landed a position repairing then-state-of-the-art Commodores and Osbornes. On nights and weekends, he also manned the cash register at his parents' new Spring Branch convenience store (once getting robbed at gunpoint). After a year, his family lent him the money to open Microland, an Alief computer store. He was 28 years old.

Laurie Lamendola, who purchased computers from Vo for the business supply store Century Business Equipment, praises Vo's considerate style. "He was very fair in his pricing, easy to work with, very pleasant, and I think he was fair with his employees as well," she says. "He has people who have worked with him for ten or 15 years. He's a very loyal person."

By the mid-1980s, many other Vietnamese immigrants were also becoming successful businessmen. But unlike minority leaders from larger ethnic groups, they stayed out of local politics. Instead, most people remained focused on returning to Vietnam by overthrowing the communist regime; they supported militant groups such the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam.

Asian-Americans remained nearly invisible in Houston politics for another decade, until Martha Wong, the daughter of a Chinese grocer, hit the scene in 1993 with stump speeches that could have been squeezed straight from the mouth of a tobacco-chewing cowboy. A native Houstonian and Republican who talks with a thick Texas twang, Wong won a Houston City Council seat representing District C, a predominately white area southwest of downtown, thereby becoming the first Asian-American in Houston elected to high office.

"Even Mayor Lanier said, 'I didn't think you could pull that off,' " Wong recalls. " 'I didn't think that people would vote for an Asian.' "

Wong became a champion for Asian-Americans. She says she convinced the University of Houston to create the Asian-American studies program. She brokered the appointment of the first Asian-American on the Metro board, the sports authority and the police department command staff. And, she says, she removed unwritten hiring caps at HPD for Asian-Americans and added incentives to recruit officers fluent in Asian languages.

The results surprised her. "I began thinking, 'Well, this is magic.' "

Around the same time, Asian-American groups were also becoming much better politically organized. Wong helped create the Asian-American Coalition in 1989 to support Asian-American-friendly candidates. Many political action committees also formed around specific Asian ethnicities. The 80-20 PAC, now the largest Asian-American political group in Houston, formed in 1999 with the goal of consolidating the Asian groups into one formidable voting bloc, under the slogan "Unity Is Power."

"For so long people were just happy to have their name in a photo with a public official," says 80-20 co-founder Rogene Gee Calvert. "But we have gone way beyond photographs to really wielding political power."  

The unity paid off for Asian groups, up to a point. Democrat Gordon Quan joined Wong in 1999 on the City Council and would soon become the city's first Asian-American mayor pro tem. But Quan shared with Wong the advantage of being a lifelong Houstonian. And even an impeccable Houston pedigree wasn't enough to protect him from occasional xenophobia. For example, when he proposed a resolution asking the U.S. government to document the existence of weapons of mass destruction before going to war in Iraq, a talk radio host questioned whether he had ties to communist China.

It's not surprising, then, that until very recently, few immigrant Asians -- who don't speak "Texan" English and may attend temple instead of church -- have bothered to run for office in Houston. Instead, the 90 percent of Asians who are immigrants tend to invest their extra time in business and education.

Vo is no exception. The young-looking father of three works 60 hours a week and is addicted to continuing education classes, having passed courses in real estate brokerage, building construction, air-conditioning repair, Spanish and jewelry design. He began buying real estate in 1995; he uses the construction courses to better supervise his building contractors, teaches new techniques to his air-conditioning repairmen and speaks Spanish to his tenants. He bought jewelry-making machines but hasn't used them. "I guess you cannot do everything," he says.

Like many rookie Asian politicians, Vo has a political résumé that is considerably short. He serves on the board of the Alief YMCA and the Super Neighborhood Council, a group focused on community improvements. Even so, his entrepreneurial acumen and history as a quick learner are sure to ingratiate him with key supporters in Alief's business community.

But Wong doesn't think Vo will win. Though she's supporting Heflin, a fellow Republican, her take on the question has a certain authority: In 2002, she defeated longtime Democratic incumbent Debra Danburg in redrawn District 134 to become the first Asian-American woman elected to the Texas House. A sign on Kirby Drive points to her office, which is decorated inside with a "God Bless Texas" sign, a Texas flag and a giant Texas star.

Wong says Vo's Vietnamese accent is too much of a liability. "There is a little rebellion out there against the Asians," she says. "When we put up the Asian [language] street signs out there, there were people who got very angry.

"There is still a feeling that if you need to be here, you need to be Americanized."

If being Americanized will win the race in Alief, Heflin is a shoo-in. His wide suspenders, double chin and molasses accent would seem to put him at ease eating pancakes in any truck stop between here and Kentucky. But follow the souped-up Hondas off the Sam Houston Tollway toward his office, and you're more likely to see them make a pit stop for bahn mi sandwiches and bubble tea.

It's unclear how much Heflin notices his district's changing environs. Inside his headquarters on South Kirkwood, a giant poster celebrates the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and a framed map depicts the boundaries of postindependence Texas. Nods to the noncowboy contingent are more slapdash: There's a small glass memento commemorating his participation in the 2002 Asian/Pacific Heritage Parade, a few Coca-Cola bottles seemingly inscribed in Chinese, and a bonsai tree, which is dead.

Heflin holds forth in an adjoining, Spartan room. The ambience may represent an aversion to interior decorating, but Heflin's opponents say he's almost never in town. They're even thinking of printing "missing person" milk cartons with his face on them. "If you want to see him, you have to go to Austin," says Vo political consultant Mustafa Tameez. "He's not from here. He's not from District 149. He's from Austin."

Tameez is speaking metaphorically, but clearly the gulf between Heflin and his district has widened. In 2002, Heflin was challenged by Andrew Tran, a Vietnamese-American paralegal and former priest. Despite his lack of experience, political or otherwise, Tran came within 2,000 ballots of winning, out of 23,000 cast. "He scared the shit out of him," professor Stein says. "All I remember was when the day was done we were looking at the numbers and saying, 'What the hell happened over there?' "

Heflin says he knows exactly what happened, and he knew it long before the election. "I was surprised that my margin wasn't thinner," he says. His district "was one of them that was knowingly drawn more competitively" during the 2001 redistricting. Indeed, several Republican analysts say Heflin doesn't need to preserve a wide margin to feel confident about this year's contest. "Talmadge Heflin will be one of the last guys to lose a race in Harris County," says Allen Blakemore, a consultant for conservatives. "If he loses, there will be a whole host of other guys ahead of him."  

As the chair of the appropriations committee, Heflin has earned a reputation as a hard worker. "He's a guy who knows his business," says Austin consultant Bill Miller, "and you have to in that job, because you have to understand the programs that the state of Texas funds."

Yet as the election approaches, Heflin is probably best known locally for his controversial child custody fight. Heflin and his wife battled Ugandan immigrant Mariam Katamba, allegedly their former maid, over control of her 20-month-old son, whom they claimed she neglected. Marching through the Harris County Family Law Center recently, they were tracked by four fiercely competing television crews and one photographer, many of whom crashed into a wall where the hallway narrowed.

The high-profile dispute isn't likely to endear Heflin to voters. Katamba lacks a green card and testified the Heflins paid her in cash -- raising the possibility the state representative violated tax and immigrant work laws. And worse, many minorities and immigrants in Heflin's district are likely to bristle at his custody arguments. Sounding a bit too reminiscent of a paternalistic slave owner, he testified: "We all know the terrible problem that black male children have growing up into manhood without being in prison."

Katamba's attorney Bobby Young accused the Heflins of exploiting their political influence to set a dangerous precedent affecting poor immigrants. "What they are doing is not only wrong," she told the cameras, "but it violates every fundamental right you can think of."

Aside from fighting to adopt Katamba's baby, Heflin seems tepid on immigrant-related issues. To his credit with Asians, he sponsored a bill to allow Vietnamese immigrants who fought with Americans in Vietnam to qualify for Texas veterans' benefits -- something Democrats tried but failed to deliver, he says. Yet he doesn't support popular ideas such as using government funds to help establish specialized health clinics for ethnic populations.

In fact, despite his district's increasing share of low-income residents, Heflin's appropriations committee has overseen drastic cuts in state support for the poor. The most widely condemned was a gutting of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which booted 147,000 kids from the program's roster. In 2003, Texas already had the lowest percentage of children in the nation with health insurance coverage.

On other issues important to immigrants, Heflin seems openly dismissive. Asked to comment on what can be done to prevent attacks and government crackdowns on people from the Middle East and South Asia, he brings up an anecdote about a local tire store, owned by a Middle Eastern family, that burned shortly after 9/11. "It turned out the family, the ownership of that store, burned the store for insurance purposes," he says. "So, you know, there's always people who are trying to point something out about how we are discriminating, when in fact we are not."

Heflin says he'd rather focus on issues that affect all voters, such as tax policy, than pander to specific groups within the community. "I don't go to Austin saying, 'Gee whiz, I've got some folks who have shown up who I haven't had before, so I guess I'd better change my philosophy on how I look at government,' " he says. "For one thing, I look at my constituents as a whole."

A few days later, only a part of Heflin's constituency was seated at the Ocean Palace restaurant in Alief's Hong Kong Mall, but the Republicans salivated. The members of President George W. Bush's Asian-American Pacific Islander Advisory Council were serving free moo goo gai pan, and they weren't about to drone on about representing America "as a whole."

Instead, speaker after speaker mounted the podium to explain exactly what President Bush is doing for Asian-Americans. They touted a project pioneered by the local branch of the Environmental Protection Agency to improve the health of (predominately Asian) nail salon workers. And they stressed that the president has appointed 206 Asian-Americans, more than any U.S. president in recent history.

"Please know that the Asian-American/Pacific Islander community is continuing to be represented" in the White House, says commission director Eddy Badrina, a native of Houston, "and hopefully with myself and the commissioners, that will increase even more through the coming years."

If the message was unpalatable to Heflin, it didn't stop him from going through the buffet.

Yet the Republican Party as a whole is learning that simply showing up sometimes isn't good enough. When House Majority Leader Tom DeLay spoke at a similar event two years ago, South Asians stood up en masse to protest a lack of representation. Since then, Thomas Abraham, the Indian-American owner of a chain of air-conditioning supply stores, was elected to the City Council in DeLay's Sugar Land, and Pakistani-American real estate developer M.J. Khan won a race for Houston City Council District F, which includes Alief.  

Indeed, Republicans have fared better among Asian-Americans in Houston than among any other major ethnic group. Four high-ranking Asian-Americans are elected Republicans in the Houston area, compared to one Democrat. Republicans say there's a good reason: Asians tend to cherish family values, self-sufficiency and a business-friendly environment. "You don't ask your neighbor to help, and you don't ask your government to help you," Wong says. "So if you look at it, the fit is very easy."

The Republican message is also increasingly appealing to other minority groups. Hispanics have gone from voting four-to-one Democrat ten years ago to three-to-one Democrat today. Republican consultant Blakemore says he's thus "not terribly worried" about the state's demographic changes, and predicts recruitment by his party will keep pace.

Yet incorporating more minorities into the party may irk some Anglos. For example, one Asian-American Republican who stood up to address the president's advisory panel at Ocean Palace was clearly not typical of his party. "The fight against terrorism has really given concern to South Asians," says City Councilmember Khan. "It is currently more and more put on the law-abiding citizens of this country who all happen to be of South Asian descent."

These kinds of tensions within the party may already be taking their toll. Anecdotal accounts suggest ethnic Asians could easily swing more liberal. For example, a group of young Vietnamese-Americans at the event -- among them a girl with bright pink hair -- applauded Khan vigorously. And when a staunch Republican earnestly plugged President Bush's No Child Left Behind school program, they laughed.

"I would say, based on the people I talk to, my parents' generation prefers Republicans because their experience with Republicans is that they're anticommunist," says Binh Q. Nguyen, vice president of the Vietnamese Community of Houston and Vicinity, who was wearing a hip Etro-style shirt. "But young people are more often Democrats because it's more real in their daily lives."

In fact, some young Vietnamese-Americans in attendance had even criticized Vo's résumé as too weak on social activism. They were supporting him anyway, of course, and set off to meet him after the speeches ended. But Vo had already left. Several people seemed perplexed by this; Calvert of the 80-20 PAC guessed he'd stepped out to avoid crossing paths with Heflin.

In what is a dangerous attribute for a politician running a tight race, Vo can sometimes come across as shy. At a recent health fair at the Notre Dame Catholic Church, he was approached by Robert Searcy, a firewood salesman whose pot belly bulged into a Talmadge Heflin T-shirt. Searcy complimented Vo a bit disingenuously, before concluding, "You should join us." Vo could have in turn invited Searcy to become a Democrat, or at least quipped back with a clever defense of his party. Instead, he declined the offer with a simple "I don't think I will" and slipped away.

A cultural aversion to confrontation has hurt Asian-Americans politically, says state Representative Wong. "It's that kind of politeness that we have that I think prevents many Asian-Americans from being recognized," she says.

Vo's weakness in engaging people may also come from his command of English, which is excellent but far from perfect. For example, he often makes slightly off-kilter statements such as "That's not a common sense to do at all" and "I see all my life I try to educate myself." To his credit, anyone who also speaks Spanish, Vietnamese and French isn't exactly a linguistic rube. Friends such as City Councilmember Quan have advised Vo to keep his statements simple and direct -- a strategy that helps his grammar more than his repartee.

The candidate's lack of good ol' boy charm might make him a hard sell to Anglos, who remain a decisive factor in the election. Murray estimates Vo must win 22 percent of the Anglo vote in the district. Thanks to a growth in the minority population, that share is less than what former candidate Tran would have needed to win the election in 2002. But Vo still needs about 300 more Anglo votes than Tran received.

He could make up for a lack of appeal among whites with better Asian voter turnout. For example, roughly 11,000 voting-age Vietnamese-Americans live in Alief, but only about 1,400 voted for Tran. If Vo can pick up another 1,500 Vietnamese votes, Murray says, he has a good shot at winning. And to Vo's great advantage, groups such as the Vietnamese Community of Houston and Vicinity have run highly successful voter registration drives since 2002, helping to increase Vietnamese-American registration in Harris County by more than half.  

But in a race where every vote counts, the ultimate decisive factor is Vo himself. And despite his shortage of charisma, Vo holds two big personal advantages. He's no stranger to hard work -- he started campaigning nearly a year ago. What's more important, he knows how to educate himself -- and not just about air-conditioning units.

Vo's campaign often comes across more like a teach-in, where the student is the candidate and the voters are the professors. He has personally visited more than 2,000 houses (wearing out a pair of shoes along the way). From conversations on local stoops, he crafted his platform: repairing public education, reversing cuts in health coverage and improving conditions for small businesses. "That's the most exciting part of the campaign," says consultant Tameez. The platform "wasn't conceived in some back room. It was conceived by the people."

After years of being out of touch with their state representative, voters want a candidate who will listen to them, Tameez predicts. "What's gonna put Hubert Vo in office is the dissatisfaction of average citizens about their representative Talmadge Heflin," he says, "because they don't know who he is, they don't know what he represents, they have never seen him. The only thing they know about him is that, yeah, he is some powerful guy in Austin, but he is certainly not representing me."

On an oppressively hot August afternoon, Vo sets his campaign in motion. He climbs into his Ford Expedition, outfitted with a box of Vo flyers, campaign buttons and voter registration cards. "It's my toolbox," he says. Off Keegans Street, a two-lane blacktop that was once a rural farm road, he spots a 1970s-era subdivision and stops to knock on doors.

At a ranch-style home with a pickup in the driveway, a woman joins her young son at the door. Vo introduces himself. Elvina Rahming doesn't have any questions for the candidate, but she has plenty to tell him about what she wants to change. "I would like to see a government that is more inclusive, and not exclusive," says the young African-American. "That's my main thing: having someone who will represent everyone, and not just one facet of the population, especially in this area, because we are diverse and multicultural, and all of us are here to realize the same American dream.

"I have faith you will do that," she tells Vo.

The houses in the neighborhood look as diverse as their occupants. Some have wild tropical plants, others neatly pruned hedges of roses. But seemingly transcending race and gardening style is a desire to see the neighborhood look better. Even one Anglo voter who meets Vo is willing to consider how the candidate could make it happen.

Warren Proud, a short, wrinkled, registered Republican, opens the door and gives Vo an earful about how he asked the city to repaint stripes on the streets and never received a reply. Vo stands by the door, next to Proud's huge Suzuki motorcycle, and invites him to speak at the next meeting of the neighborhood council, which works on such issues.

Impressed that Vo seems to care about the problem, Proud says he plans to vote for him. Before the candidate leaves, Proud asks how to find the meeting.

"Oh, I'll give you call," Vo says. "I'll give you a call."

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