Anthony Tran cares a lot about having a voice -- in his community and at the polls.
Just about every week, the 23-year-old Democrat sings in the Vietnamese-American choir at Our Lady of La Vang Parish in downtown San Jose. And recently he also found his voice in the 2016 elections after being inspired by former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
"This is the first year I became more political and talked to my parents about it," said the San Jose State University economics major. "My parents never talked about anything politics before this year."
Tran's parents are part of a large community of refugees who came to San Jose after escaping Saigon when it fell to the communists in 1975. For decades, many in the community said they didn't get involved in politics. They were just focused on learning English and rebuilding their lives here.
But today Vietnamese-Americans' political influence is reaching a new level, especially on the San Jose City Council.
There are two Vietnamese-American council members now, and after November's election there could be three out of 11.
"It's certainly a sign of the growing influence and power of a very important community that for many years, frankly, didn't have power," said Mayor Sam Liccardo.
In San Jose's District 8, attorney Jimmy Nguyen is running against Sylvia Arenas. Tam Nguyen represents District 7 and Manh Nguyen represents District 4. In June, Manh Nguyen was defeated by Lan Diep, who won the seat by a dozen votes. Diep will take office in January 2017.
Vietnamese-Americans now make up about 10 percent of the city's population. They are an even larger share of the city's electorate, said Hien Do, a professor of sociology and interdisciplinary social sciences specializing in Asian-American studies at San Jose State.
"I think one of the reasons they probably vote more than other communities is because they feel they have more at stake, but also they see their politicians representing them," said Do.
That political evolution started around 2005, when Madison Nguyen was elected as the first Vietnamese-American member on the San Jose City Council. She subsequently became vice mayor.
"If they can elect the candidate that they support, then they feel very empowered," said Nguyen. "And that sense of empowerment is significant."
Loc Vu, an 84-year-old former South Vietnamese Army colonel, said the reason older Vietnamese-American voters turn out in large numbers is because of their experience of war and political persecution in Vietnam. As with many in his generation, Vu often votes Republican, even though he's now registered as an independent.
"Most refugees believe Republicans are more anti-communist than the other party," said Vu.
Madison Nguyen, who left Vietnam and came to the United States when she was 4 years old, said the anti-communist Republican mindset is hardwired into a large majority of older Vietnamese-Americans.
"I can almost guarantee you that every Vietnamese-American who left Vietnam resents the communist government because that's the reason we left in the first place," said Nguyen, a Democrat. "It's because we don't want to live in a country where we could be persecuted for our political or religious beliefs. We came to this country for a better shot at success and a future."
But today a new generation of Vietnamese-Americans in Santa Clara County are openly becoming Democrats. In 2008, a Mercury News computer analysis of nearly 30,000 new voters showed that Vietnamese Americans age 30 and under were registering Democratic over Republican by nearly 4-1. The analysis was done by putting Vietnamese surnames into a database.
At a coffee shop in San Jose's Little Saigon neighborhood, Nicole Le, who came to the United States from Vietnam when she was 10, said her parents are staunch Republicans but all five of their children are registered Democrats.
"The younger generation wants to break away from the mold, that teaching, that philosophy," said Le, 44, a professional at a tech company.
Madison Nguyen, now running for the state's 27th Assembly District against current councilman Ash Kalra, said younger voters are less concerned about communism and more concerned about the local economy.
"There are other issues, such as education, job creation and the housing crisis," said Nguyen.
That said, Nguyen's political path is a cautionary tale about the continuing electoral power of older Vietnamese-Americans.
Nguyen was almost recalled from the San Jose City Council in 2009 when she proposed naming a San Jose shopping and restaurant area "Saigon Business District" instead of "Little Saigon."
Do said it was a miscalculation because the name "Little Saigon" represented the Vietnamese who had been displaced and it honored all their sacrifices and hard work building a new life in San Jose.
"It wasn't just a place to do business, it was the place, our home, our language, our culture. All those things that represent who we are and who we were as refugees," said Do.
Nguyen said that in 2009 she was a young, green politician when she made the decision.
"I don't think I would classify it as losing touch with my community. I was just politically inexperienced," said Nguyen, who prevailed in the recall election.
Today millennial voters like Tran said that unlike many of the community's elders, they won't vote for a local candidate just because that person is Vietnamese-American.
"It's nice for a new ethnic group to enter office, but to me it doesn't matter as long as the best-qualified people represent the people's interest," said Tran.
Now that Tran has been bitten by the political bug, he said, casting a ballot and having a voice in the election is what matters most to him.