In the world of Westminster politics, not even the beloved Tet Parade is safe from personal conflicts and grudges.
Over the past week, Little Saigon blogger Nam Quan Nguyen has blasted out emails and videos claiming that Westminster officials – including Police Chief Darin Lenyi – want to cancel this year’s parade, slated for Feb. 5, “in light of the ongoing spike of COVID-19 Omicron variant.”
But Lenyi said it isn’t true, and he wasted no words squelching the rumor.
“I’m going to use a media term: That’s fake news,” he said. “In no way, shape or form did I ever mention canceling the parade.
“The city is working with the parade organizer to look at other options for staffing the parade,” Lenyi added. “Like police departments everywhere, we have staffing shortages due to Covid outbreaks.”
Nguyen did not return requests for comment.
Many observers suggest the drama has more to with simmering resentments between local politicians than with the ceremony itself – Westminster’s biggest and most lucrative yearly event.
“Why are they singling out the parade?” said the event’s organizer, Phat Bui. “They’re not telling people to stay away from other (Tet-related) events.”
Bui himself might be part of that answer. The Garden Grove councilman falls on one side of a complicated political rift in Little Saigon. Blogger Nguyen falls on another.
A former Westminster traffic commissioner, appointed by Mayor Tri Ta, Nguyen ran an unsuccessful 2020 campaign against Carlos Manzo for a seat on the Westminster City Council.
Nguyen operates a Vietnamese-language YouTube channel, Trust Media Network, that has a following in Little Saigon. He and longtime political activist Ky Ngo co-host a talk show on which they broadcast displeasure with Bui, express support for Ta, and endorse the recall of Manzo and Westminster Councilwoman Kimberly Ho.
Ta and Westminster Councilman Charlie Nguyen also pop up in True Media Network videos, promoting their causes and venting disagreements with their council colleagues.
Asked about Nam Quan Nguyen’s claims that the police chief wanted to cancel the parade, Ta said in an email, “The real fact is that our police chief, the police union and the interim city manager have raised the same concern of staff shortages for any mega-events in the city.”
Indeed, the highly contagious omicron variant is a serious concern. Westminster’s parade honoring Tet – a huge Vietnamese holiday tied to the year’s first new moon – attracts thousands of people from throughout the state and even the country.
Still, Westminster Police Chief Lenyi said any discussion from his side has been about ways to have the parade safely – not cancel it.
“Certainly, a mega-event could spread the virus,” he said. “But that is not up to the police chief to decide.”
Hostilities among local politicians started boiling to the surface three years ago after Tai Do joined the Westminster council. Soon after his election, he publicly needled Ta, Ho and Charlie Nguyen about alleged ethical lapses.
At that time, the three council members formed a dependable majority. In the summer of 2019, they voted to yank the upcoming Tet Parade from Bui – who had organized it for seven years – and give it to a less experienced applicant.
Eventually, local attorney Lan Quoc Nguyen, a close associate of Ta, ended up in charge of the 2020 parade. Bui then proceeded to hold a second parade in Garden Grove. Both went off smoothly and were well attended.
Since then, however, the Westminster council has changed. Ho switched allegiances last year and now generally votes with Do and Manzo, stirring anger in some Little Saigon circles. Ho’s third vote killed a proposed redevelopment of the Civic Center. And, sparking intense emotion among many Vietnamese War-era immigrants, she later helped postpone a memorial honoring the battle of Quang Tri.
Then, in November, the new majority voted to return the parade to Bui’s organization, Little Saigon Tet Parade Association. The loser in that battle? A group led by Lan Quoc Nguyen.
Ta, Charlie Nguyen and their backers clearly don’t much care for Bui, who supported a failed recall effort against them in 2020. And, adding to the rift, Bui virtually attended Wesminster council meetings last year as a public speaker, criticizing the Quang Tri monument that Ta and Charlie Nguyen championed.
Still, given that the Tet parade is a big deal for Westminster businesses and a touchstone for the community, some expressed surprise that politics could trump civic support.
“Why would anybody want to sabotage something that brings so much happiness to our community and showcases the richness of the Vietnamese-American heritage?” said Councilman Tai Do.
Earlier this month, a week before a Jan. 15 fundraiser for the parade, Nam Quan Nguyen and Ky Ngo posted a video with the headline, “Tet Parade Will Be Canceled.” That, too, was incorrect.
“A lot of people called up confused,” Bui said. “Some who had reserved tables canceled. We were supposed to fill 70 tables but only filled 60.”
At the Jan. 18 City Council meeting, Charlie Nguyen floated the possibility of canceling the event due to coronavirus numbers, but did not get enough votes for a formal discussion.
This year, the Little Saigon Tet Parade Association – which pays the city upfront for the entire event, including police officer hours – needs more money than ever. Because of staffing shortages in the Westminster Police Department, the organizer will have to hire private firms at a higher rate to help with blocking off streets and managing traffic.
“Normally, we have to pay the city about $60,000, but this year it might be $110,000,” Bui said. The organization will shell out $80,000 more for firecrackers, stage rentals, toilets and other expenses. As of now, Bui said, the nonprofit has about $97,000 and, with only two weeks left before parade day, it may need to take out loans to cover the final bill.
Westminster Councilman Sergio Contreras, who did not run for re-election in 2020, said he witnessed tense interactions between Bui and Ta during his eight years on the council.
“Historically, they have never gotten along, and I don’t know why,” Contreras said.
The two men seemed competitive with each other, Contreras said: “It was always, who can build the biggest statue?”
“But what I don’t understand is getting the community caught up in your internal battles,” Contreras added. “The Tet parade is supposed to bring everybody together.”
Ta said via email that he has not yet decided if he will attend the parade, even as mayor of the host city.
“This year is a unique situation because of the Covid-19 circumstance,” Ta wrote. “Public safety is my number one priority; therefore, I will have to monitor the daily update on Covid-19 (before) attending a few mega-events.”
The dust-up over the parade has proved frustrating to some Little Saigon officials.
Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do said he is “disappointed by the misinformation” flying around Little Saigon about the Tet parade.
“I don’t understand the motivation behind it. It’s scaring the community.”
Do said he intends to play his usual role in the parade lineup.
“I just got my booster (vaccination) and I’m ready to go,” he said. “But I might just stay in my Jeep this year, and not get out and shake hands. I don’t want to be an agent of transmission.”
Do added that he hopes the parade and other Orange County Tet events will offer a respite from “divisions in the Vietnamese community.”
“Tet should be the one occasion where we can put all that aside,” Do said. “This is a time for celebration, optimism and happiness.”
Westminster Mayor Ta, too, views Tet as “the time for unity and healing.”
“It is the time that we hope for a better future,” Ta said. “It is the time that we remind ourselves of the sacrifice of our ancestors. It is the time for our community to be united, to celebrate and to welcome the fresh spirit of spring to our home.”
In addition to the parade in Westminster, Tet celebrations are in the works all over Southern California – including Disneyland and on the Orange County Fairgrounds. Supervisor Do will host a three-day Tet festival in Fountain Valley’s Mile Square Regional Park, Feb. 4 through Feb. 6.