Episode 112

Joe Nguyen ·  Rising Up in Politics

“My parents certainly struggled, they were persecuted while were in Vietnam and eventually they escaped; and made their way to America.”

Sen. Joe Nguyen was born in White Center, raised in Burien and currently lives in West Seattle. His experiences growing up in an immigrant community as the son of Vietnamese refugees and being raised by a single mother informs much of his service today.

Since being elected, Sen. Nguyen has used his time in office to advocate for those who have been historically underrepresented, and to push for progressive legislation that provides services to those in need. He prioritizes criminal justice reform, environmental health, and progressive tax reform. Sen. Nguyen is the vice chair of the Senate Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation Committee and a member of the Transportation Committee, the Rules Committee and the Environment, Energy & Technology Committee.

Sen. Nguyen grew up in White Center and lives in West Seattle with his wife Tallie, a former special education teacher in the Highline Public School District, and their three young children.


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Joe Nguyen

[00:00:00] Maggie Chui: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Asian Hustle Network Podcast! Today, we have a very special guest with us. His name is Joe Newman. 

Sen. Joe Nguyen was born in White Center, raised in Burien, and currently lives in West Seattle. His experiences growing up in an immigrant community as the son of Vietnamese refugees and being raised by a single mother informs much of his service today.

Since being elected, Sen. Nguyen has used his time in office to advocate for those who have been historically underrepresented and to push for progressive legislation that provides services to those in need. He prioritizes criminal justice reform, environmental health, and progressive tax reform. Sen. Nguyen is the vice-chair of the Senate Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation Committee and a member of the Transportation Committee, the Rules Committee, and the Environment, Energy & Technology Committee.

Sen. Nguyen grew up in White Center and lives in West Seattle with his wife Tallie, a former special education teacher in the Highline Public School District, and their three young children. Senator, welcome to the show.

[00:00:02] Bryan Pham: Joe, welcome to the Asian Hustle Network. 

[00:00:05] Joe Nguyen: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it 

[00:00:08] Bryan Pham: We’re excited to have you on. So Joe, can you tell us more about yourself? What was your upbringing like? 

[00:00:12] Joe Nguyen: Yeah. Here. So the reason why I’m the state Senator from Washington and the Seattle area.

I’m the first Vietnamese state Senator in the history of Washington state. And what’s interesting is that despite representing a fairly diverse community, I’m also the first person of color to ever represent the legislature in my area. So I grew up in a lower-income part of town called White Center. And the reason why we got there was because my family fled Vietnam during the war.

So this story might be similar to some of the folks who are listening right now, but my father fought in the Vietnam war. And what’s interesting is, if you look at what’s happening To Afghanistan right now, a lot of the stories that they told me growing up, I would imagine it’s very similar to the evacuation that we’re seeing. So my heart goes out to the people in Afghanistan, but he fought in the war, was evacuated with the US military. And the interesting thing is that my mom, because at that time you didn’t have the internet, you didn’t have a cell phone. You couldn’t text message by the time that she found out what was happening, he had already fled.

So for three years, she didn’t know if he was alive or dead. And finally after sending messages from Washington State to Japan to their village, and Vietnam she hopped on. the boat And fled so many of us. They certainly struggled while they were there, they were persecuted while they were there.

And that’s why they had to flee and eventually making their way to public housing in White Center, which is where I was born. And fast forward a little bit, my family was doing okay. And then my father had got into a car accident. So he was working on a van for the church and got into a car accident, left him quadriplegic.

So growing up was incredibly tough. Financially mentally, emotionally. And that was the backdrop in which I existed. And a lot of people, when you’re from a marginalized community, especially something that is happening, not often are you told that you can be whatever you want to be, you’re lucky to get a job.

You’re lucky to be able to go to college. So a lot of my upbringing was really trying to fight back against that narrative of being told that you wouldn’t really amount to much because of how desperate the situation was of us growing up. But despite that I was class president in high school, student body president in college.

My background is actually in finance economics. I worked for UBS for a while. Now I work in tech and Microsoft and then decided to run for office because one of the reasons why I first got involved was I really just wanted to help people. So in my family’s greatest times of need, this community really showed up for us.

And I’ll give you an example. My father was in a wheelchair, my brother and I would have to carry him up and down the front steps of our house in order for him to get to his appointments. And a neighbor drove by one day and said, Hey, why don’t you guys have a ramp instead of carrying up and down? And the honest answer was, we couldn’t afford it.

So a week later they came by built a ramp for us. And really gave us the opportunity to then be able to get our dad to medical appointments. So that was the backdrop of which I was grown in, which I was raised, being allowed to be here because of the resources and support after the war, the community really coming to help us, and wanting to be a part of that change as well. And when I first got involved in politics was only about six years ago or so there was a young man named Tommy Le Vietnamese man who was shot by law enforcement down in Baron, which is South King County. And I really want to understand why did that happen and how do you fix this?

So I got more involved in law enforcement oversight. I had been involved with housing and affordability and homelessness, and the more that I met with legislators and officials, the more I realized that I’m not sure if they cared about our communities as much as we did, and I’m saying that in a nice way.

And when the opportunity arose for me to run for office, I jumped at the opportunity to do it. And what’s interesting is that I was told that since I wasn’t from the political establishment, I wouldn’t have enough support. I wouldn’t be able to raise enough money. Therefore, I wouldn’t be able to win yet, despite running in a race against 10 other people. I won in a landslide. So really what that showed me was that not only should we be here, we should have been here the entire time. So that’s how I got into politics. That’s how I’m now the first Vietnamese state Senator in Washington state. And in a very short period of time, we’ve made quite the splash and now I serve in leadership as well. So that’s my background and thank you for having me on the show. 

And of course, that is quite an extensive introduction and it covers a lot, right? I think a lot of us in especially. As first-generation Vietnamese American, we can definitely relate to your story a lot, because that is basically our reality.

Now we first came to this date. It’s you’re escaping war. No one really believes you can do anything. Your first mentality growing up especially as a first-generation immigrant is we all have to survive, and everything we’ve done so far, especially everything that you’ve done so far.

 it really highlights the American opportunity that we have nor be anything. So backtrack a little bit more. You had a very successful career in finance, right? You even were managing 150 million portfolios. And as you mentioned, Tommy Lei, and you were trying to figure out how to be more involved in politics.

 Have you ever considered yourself an activist growing up and have you considered yourself to be some of those very vocal for the community? Or was this something that developed over seemingly over time and overnight where it’s okay, enough is enough?

Why is there a model minority myth against our community where it’s, why are we always apply? Why are we keeping our heads down? How do you ever face those questions? And how did you overcome that? 

Yeah, no. And to your point, you actually said it earlier, is that oftentimes when communities are just trying to survive, they’re told to keep their heads down.

Don’t rock the boat, don’t get involved. And out of the kindness of her heart, my mom actually, when I first told her I was going to run for student body president or even class president in high school, she said, Hey, don’t do that because you should just be focused on your homework. Don’t get involved in politics because for them, politics was literally life and death. That was the perspective that they came in. So we are some of the first generations where we don’t see ourselves as just guests in America, we are in fact Americans and we deserve every opportunity that everybody has as well. And I think the model minority myth is so detrimental because there are a lot of people who are suffering that don’t quite get help or they themselves don’t realize that they could get help or should get help because of that mentality as well.

So I’ve always been pretty vocal. The middle child in my family. So when you’re growing up as an Asian person, you’re told you can be three things: doctor, lawyer, engineer. So my sister’s an engineer, my brother’s a doctor. I was supposed to be the lawyer. So I’m actually the black sheep of the family that went into politics.

And one of the reasons why I did that was just because, I wanted to buck that trend a little bit, but also I wasn’t quite happy doing the things that I was doing before, where if your pursuit is simply selfish reasons not in a bad way but if you’re just focused on, how do I financially set myself up for the future versus serving the community?

I didn’t really see myself being fulfilled in that respect. And that’s kinda why I got involved in the first place that, and also, I think maybe because I’m the middle child, maybe because from the background that we grew up in, whenever you’re told that you can’t do something, I always get that chip on my shoulder and it makes me want to do an even more.

And what’s funny is that I was told that in high school, until in college being told that now in the legislature and then proving people wrong. And I think the reason why that’s so important is because I’m not the only one that’s being told that stuff, people that our communities are being told that. So for me, great leaders do more than just good things. They empower other people as well. So I think the reason why I’ve gotten more vocal in my activism is because, I see this as a way to empower other people who should be involved, who aren’t because they weren’t given that opportunity. So I think it wasn’t necessarily overnight.

But it also was definitely over time in the sense that, after being told for so long you can’t do something. You have to push back a little bit because our communities need us to do it. Yeah. 

[00:07:44] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I definitely agree. I’m a positive here quick. 

[00:07:46] Joe Nguyen: I agree. Information so far. I really appreciate that.

[00:07:52] Bryan Pham: I definitely appreciate you sharing that perspective. I’m curious about you as a person, right? Because funny enough, I am also a middle child, and then my sister is a doctor. Funny enough, I’m also supposed to be the lawyer. That’s super funny, but I ended up being a couple of things in college. I was a computer science major. I was pre-law and pre-med so I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. So I decided to do almost everything. So I can definitely relate on your side, but the thing that really resonated with me the most is, your community is also telling you “no” and to keeping your head down. How have you developed an internal voice to push against the internal internalization of these values that others push on you and create your own voice? How do you develop those mechanisms? Do you practice affirmation? Do you write in a journal? How do you create this internal system? 

[00:08:43] Joe Nguyen: No, that’s so funny too. Cause I was actually computer science too. So I studied computer science, finance, economics, and humanities. And I finally had to narrow it down. So I went with finance and economics. 

So that’s so funny that you’re saying that you were pre-law and also Computer Science because that was the exact same thing. And I think, for a long time, I didn’t really push back very much. It was more, other people being successful in spaces and you wonder why certain people are told they should do something while other people aren’t.

And for me, I never developed a disdain for the individual that was being told that they could do whatever they wanted more. Why not me? Why not now? And I think a lot of it was also the people that I was around or that I chose to surround myself with were also very successful, whether it was academically or in their careers as well.

And I think that was probably one of the bigger things is, nobody can do this alone and point that out. And the important thing for me to be able to get into this space was, there are definitely key individuals in my life that saw something in me that maybe even, I didn’t see it in myself.

So as people are thinking about how do I get to that next level? How do I become an entrepreneur or go into politics or do these things? Sometimes you have to realize that it is not just you, that needs to be successful as the people around you as well, and that’s really what I saw. I can name off the individuals who said, Hey, look you should probably think about going into politics. I would do things different. For instance, I would download data about something in the county where I’m from, and then I would present it to the city council, I’ve presented to the county counselor, present it to all these different folks and there, and they would say, oh wow, that’s impressive.

Nobody’s ever done it before. So you need to find your hype team as well. In terms of people that can also help empower you because it was just you alone. It becomes very tough. I think it becomes easier when you have a team of folks with you, but at the same time, you do have to be a little bit cocky and confident, and there’s a fine line between cocky and confident.

And sometimes I fall on the wrong side, but that is important because it is tough when you’re trying to push back against an institution. 

[00:10:38] Bryan Pham: I call that Affirmation. It’s telling yourself that you can do it because at the end of the day, you are your biggest fan, and you believe and making a change.

And that really starts with you. If you don’t believe it, and anything else or someone tells you this doesn’t matter because this sounds amazing, where it’s you don’t believe yourself. And you’re just like, what do people keep telling me? I should do this. I have potential. I don’t think I have potential. When you start thinking that way, you’re not going to accept this. Another really important thing that you really brought to my attention is having a sort of support committee plus community behind you. If you want to go far, you need to have a team, you need to have your tribe with you, but you want to go fast and go by yourself, but you won’t go as far.

And the burnout rate is extremely high. I can even think of an example, running Asian Hustle Network without my team, I don’t think that we could have done any of the things that we want. 

Yeah. I really appreciate that. So just, bringing it back into politics. What was your first time running like and what was the process behind that? Because I understand that across different counties, different states is very different from each other. And this focus on particularly Washington and Seattle area, where you’re from that wasn’t running processes. And, as you mentioned earlier, you won in a landslide, but that doesn’t tell us the full story, how hard it was. We want to understand what was the full process and being the first Vietnamese American in that position what does that entail for you to carry so much ex expectations from the committee?

[00:12:07] Joe Nguyen: Yeah, no, that, that’s a really good question. One of the first things, and I was talking to a mentor about running for office. She’s a sitting council member right now and she said, don’t mess this up. She used a different language. We said, basically don’t mess this up because when you’re the first person to do something, you are the only perspective that people will have of you and your community.

So if I were to run, did a bad job, and I lost, the next Vietnamese person that ran for office, they’d say, oh Joe ran and he couldn’t do it. so why would this person win? But if you’re able to run and you win, oh wow. There’s a whole community of untapped potential that’s out there that we should be supporting that we hadn’t been doing it in the past.

So that was the burden of being able to run. So you have to work hard. And in this case, right? The old paradigm of how you run for office was raise enough money, get enough endorsements and you win. Nobody really talked about getting enough votes. It was all about influencing power. And I fundamentally thought that was wrong because the people who are most impacted by policies were frustrated. And I felt that because I was part of that community as well. So when I ran for office, I wanted to talk to as many people as possible and get ourselves out there. Then my language and the way that I present myself is very different than the typical politician and very authentic in my language and my tone. And I think that resonated with people because we wanted to just get the narrative out that we can do better. But at this moment it requires urgency as somebody who’s going to fight for our communities to actually get these things done. Ran against 10 people. Two people were, I would say part of the political establishment. One person was the anointed one. That’s who everybody thought was going to win. Had all the endorsements, had all the support, had everything and all the money. But at the same time, They weren’t used to running against somebody like us. When you’re an immigrant, when you’re a person of color growing up the way that I did, you’re used to working twice as hard for half as much.

So we just went out campaigning, we door knocked, more people talk to more organizations, met with any groups that would be willing to meet with us. And then also, I think we presented a narrative that was very different than the typical political establishment candidate would, and then was able to then win by 17% in the general. And in fact, we actually won the primary out of 10 people, we got number one in the primary and, what that said to me was that we need to rethink how we do things, and we need to engage people who are impacted by policies, because historically we haven’t, we’ve been talking really to people who donate to campaigns, and that’s not the majority of people, and that oftentimes leads to bad policies. So that was eyeopening for me in the sense that I ran for office. Just thinking that we could do a better job. And that we can do a better way of there’s a better way to connect people. And we ended up being right and we won by a landslide.

And that’s actually why I’m running right now for King County Executive in this area. So the King County Executive oversees the entire county. So you’re talking $12 billion budget. 14,000 people, 60 different agencies. So many of the things that are impacting my communities right now, whether it’s homelessness, affordability, housing, law enforcement, relations, transit, even climate change, that all happens at the county, and wanting to be able to influence that.

So running against somebody that has outspent me by over a million dollars, who’s been in office for 25 years, and we’re number two, we came in at a very strong second place in a very short period of time shows me that there’s an appetite for change. So fundamentally, running for office because we believe that we can do things better, but also it requires a little bit audacity, at least from somebody like myself, running for office being told that you weren’t supposed to be there and now you’re challenging everybody’s assumptions. 

[00:15:31] Bryan Pham: I love that. It’s all about challenging the status quo and you guys really hustled, that falls with the theme with Asian Hustle Network hustling for dreams and going the extra mile. Having the audacity to really reinvent the process. It’s super important.

I think a lot of us it’s easy for us to be really content with how things are. And we just go through our lives day by day. And we don’t really question anything now, but when you take a step back and be very genuine about it and really try to understand your community, that’s when you unlock a different type of potential and, being in office for 25 years, it’s a really long time.

And sometimes you just have to take a step back and understand okay, what does the modern-day generation want? What does it need? So that’s really great. Congratulations on that story and all your success. And in particularly, a lot of us in the Asian Hustle Network are working to reinvent ourselves.

A lot of us still work in our nine to five jobs and really set in our careers and we looked at it, look at our career path in my, oh wow. I wouldn’t have been in my career for about 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 years. Maybe this is a career that I’m going to finish out the rest of my life on. And a lot of people with that mentality never pursue their side hustles and their passion.

And I know that you worked as a finance person for a set amount of years. How are you able to sorta leave and start over again. That’s scary for a lot of people how are you able to leave everything and essentially redo everything? That’s big news. 

[00:16:56] Joe Nguyen: Just to be clear, the legislature is my side hustle. So in Washington state, the legislature was part-time. So having left finance, I now work in technology and I work at Microsoft right now. So because our legislature is part-time, I work full-time at Microsoft and I’m also a state Senator. I also have three kids and I’m also running for office. It’s one of those things where. I don’t know. I’m not sure if this is going to translate for everybody, but my dad was 43 when he got into a car accident that basically left him quadriplegic.

So for me, I feel I’m playing with house money at this point, right? The background in which I was raised, the opportunities that I did and did not have, I feel me being successful is a gift and I’m going to treat every single day as if it, and that sounds cliche, but seriously I don’t think I think I have 10, 20 years to be able to play in the political space.

I want to do as much as I can as fast as possible because you never know what could happen. That was the dynamics in which my family was raised in Vietnam. That’s the dynamics of which I was raised here. And I want to make sure that in a short period of time, can we get as much done as possible. Then I think that urgency is just born from that lived experience that a lot of us have right now.

Yeah, we’ve done things because we have to, we had to play it safe because we came from a situation of scarcity. So with that dynamic, what can I do right now to get it done? The hard part is that you do need to balance your mental health. Cause I know that’s a very difficult thing for a lot of people that are in this space, whether they’re entrepreneurs or in the political space.

But really that’s the motivator for me, how can I leave a better world for my kids? How can I get as much done as fast as possible with the resources that I have. And again I said before, being told that you can’t do something. And then all of a sudden, now you’re literally one of the top-ranking officials in all of Washington state passing policies that impact hundreds of millions of people.

If I can get here, but what else can I do, right? What have I been told for so long that I couldn’t do that really? I can. And it’s because somebody else was too scared for me to be in that spot because it gives up their power. So at this point I’m more just frustrated at a more kind of doing things in order to ensure that other people get an opportunity as well.

So my drive is how do we get more good people in the right places? Because that’s how we transformed. 

[00:19:03] Bryan Pham: I love that. That’s where we have a lot in common. Everything you said is very reminiscences, including your college majors and their careers sounds really similar as well. The only difference is in Asian Hustle Network, we’re full-time right now.

Yeah, I really appreciate that story and that drive and really creating a better environment for all. You’re not something I always think about over and over. It’s what kind of legacy do we want to bring to the future generation?

Because it’s really easy for us to be very pessimistic about what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with politics and our surroundings. But I think listening to you, it gives me a lot of hope for the future and what’s to come too. So the other topic, I really want to talk more about is representation inside of political realm.

As we know, as Asian-Americans. We’re looking around, it’s only a handful of us. And if there’s a handful of us, there was the same group of people running for office over and over until the point where you just I know you, and is there any other selection you go? 

Yeah. And generally the, they skew more conservative.

[00:19:54] Joe Nguyen: So I don’t know what people’s political affiliations are, but historically Asians, a politics is not being progressive like myself. 

Yeah. Yeah. I really see a brand new side of progressiveness, which you, and I think this also. For those are list of terrible activists who are interested in politics.

 How do we increase our representation out in our political realm? What can the everyday person do in order to be seen and be heard? Cause right now we realize that there’s a new playing field in the 21st century. That’s it that’s to be loud. That’s to be seen as to be heard, let’s get restored in history shown how can we continue building on top of that and create a better reputation for the Asian community.

Yeah, I think what’s interesting is my last name is Nguyen, right? So it’s the most popular, last name in king county yet? This is the first time most people have seen it on a ballot unless they’re from my district and they’ve seen it before my previous runs. So first of all, representation you’re right in itself does matter, right?

It can be that fundamental where if you’re looking at people in leadership and you don’t see yourself, That’s very hard for you to be able to imagine yourself being in that space. So I ended up talking to a lot of people, even if they’re not necessarily in Washington state about politics, because the representation is so few that they reach out to me because of it.

And the other part too is, and incumbent upon people like myself, we’re in office right now as a Senator. To be able to reach out and help cultivate, uplift, upcoming leaders. So we are very proactive when it comes to either helping people get more connected giving them opportunities or connecting bridges between two different communities.

One of the biggest things that I’ll point out. You never know what gives you that spark to get more involved. So if you’re somebody who wants to get more involved, just start doing it, whether it’s a planning commission, whether it’s a committee, whether it’s a nonprofit, just start doing things.

I got involved because there was an issue around homelessness in the area that I wanted to help solve. So I started volunteering a nonprofit. That’s how I first got involved. I never intended to be a Senator. I never intended to run for office. So do the little things that you can, and that will snowball.

You probably weren’t planning on having a tens of thousand network online to support one another. And it just started and it just happened. So you’d be surprised at how powerful you can be just by showing up and doing the work. 

[00:22:05] Bryan Pham: Yeah, I absolutely agree with that statement. You just never know if we keep war and if you continue doing things that essentially it doesn’t feel work.

That’s when creativity and passion happens, so I agree with that a lot. So Joel what’s the next step for you? What is it looking in the next couple years? How can we continue to support you? 

Yeah, I will be the first person to say that we are audacious.

[00:22:26] Joe Nguyen: My campaign is audacious. We were running from day one to be audacious. And it’s because we have urgent issues that are pressing our communities right now. And the fact that I’m even running in this race for King County Executive against a 25 year incumbent, after being outspent by millions of dollars, shows that we’re going to be bold and tackle issues with the sense of urgency that it requires.

And the biggest thing is, follow the campaign, contribute support phone bank, help us if you’re able to. But the main thing is you yourself, folks who are listening right now is that if you want to get involved, feel free to reach out to me or anybody else whether it’s in your jurisdictions or whatnot as well, because your voice is absolutely necessary.

Representation is absolutely necessary. And this is one of the secrets that I’ll tell from my time in office over the past few years is that people think that politics is about right or wrong, good or bad Democrat or Republican. That’s actually not the case. So in the legislature we see about three to 4,000 bills in any given year three or 4,000 yet we only pass two to 300, less than 10%. So most of the things that we discuss aren’t about good or bad it’s what should we prioritize? And your voice should be prioritized. Your communities should be prioritized. You should fight to make sure that the issues you care about are happening because I’ll guarantee you that doesn’t happen.

So the biggest thing is, let us know if we can help out in any way, but also if there are issues that are facing your communities, that are being ignored… Plug in, get uncomfortable, go to your council meetings testify. Do you want a nonprofit do something that you think can help the committee?

[00:23:55] Bryan Pham: Absolutely man, looking forward to having our community support, better reputation for everything. And I think the topic of reputation, I think what you bring up is it’s not only positive politics, but for anything, if we see leaders that look like us and sound like us, we’re more inspired to do that.

This is not just a stepping stone politics stuff and stuff for everything, reputation and media, corporate ladders, the whole bamboo ceiling, he always get into a deep conversation to, yeah, that’s a whole, 

There’s a lot of Asians in middle management and not enough in senior leadership, right?

There’s a statistic out there. It’s it’s really low and that’s really sad, one step at a time we’re focusing on politics during this podcast and definitely want to see more representation there. Joe, one final question. So for our listeners who are interested in your journey, how can they find out more about you in.

[00:24:45] Joe Nguyen: Yeah, follow us on social. My website is meet Joe Nguyen, N G U Y E E.com. We’re pretty active online as well. My handle was also @meetjoenguyen, so basically anything at @meetJoeNguyen is where you’ll find us. Reach out to! I love honestly, when people reach out and just say, Hey, I’m XYZ person.

This is where, I’m where I’m at. What do you think? I think the biggest thing for me is being able to give any wisdom that we may have just from having run for office and stuff that as well, but follow us online and then shoot me a note. We’re pretty engaged, and I’ll be happy to chat as well.

[00:25:18] Bryan Pham: Awesome. Awesome. We’ll definitely include that in show notes. And Joe, thank you so much for sharing your story in the podcast today. 

[00:25:25] Joe Nguyen: Thank you. You guys have a good day.