Nguyen's journey: From Vietnam to Council run

Hiep Q. Nguyen was eight years old when his family came over from Vietnam in 1991. There were twelve of them: His parents, Hiep, and nine other siblings.

“We came in with nothing,” he recalls.

Eighteen years later, Nguyen, an accountant based in Dorchester, is running for one of the four City Council At-Large seats, the first Vietnamese-American to do so.

“I feel I need to step up and give back to the community,” he told the Reporter in an interview this week at his small Dorchester Ave. second-floor office, which doubles as his campaign office.

To be sure, he’s a long shot for one of the slots. Fifteen candidates are gunning for the at-large seats, spurred on by the departure of Councillors At-Large Michael Flaherty and Sam Yoon, both of whom have sets their sights on the mayor’s office. Two incumbents – Councillors Stephen Murphy and John Connolly – are running for re-election.

The rest of the field also includes six black contenders (Ayanna Pressley; a former aide to U.S. Sen. John Kerry; Ego Ezedi, who previously ran against District Councillor Charles Yancey; Tito Jackson, an official in the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development; Haitian-American community activist Jean-Claude Sanon; MBTA worker Robert Fortes and Scotland Willis) along with two Latinos: Tomas Gonzalez, who has worked as a Latino liaison for Mayor Thomas Menino, and Felix Arroyo Jr., son of the former city councillor.

A Sept. 22 primary will narrow the number of candidates from fifteen to eight. The final election is Nov. 3.

One of seven candidates who live in Dorchester, Nguyen has raised $10,000 since he announced his candidacy in March, a figure that some candidates have been able to raise over a single 15-day period. Several hundred dollars have come from his own pocket, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

By his own admission, he has not garnered any major endorsements.

“It’s a long shot for any newcomer,” said Paul Watanabe, UMass-Boston political scientist and head of the university’s Institute for Asian American Studies. But, he added, the two incumbents are “not locks” in the election.

Watanabe noted that Nguyen has a number of attributes: he’s young, he’s an immigrant, and he has a “compelling story,” having grown up in the South Boston projects.

“They also pose some political challenges,” he said of the attributes. “I would not say by any means his chances are great. But it’s not all about winning. Much of it is about running.”

Nguyen says he remains optimistic about his chances. “Not a lot of people thought we could pass the signature phase,” he said, referring to the requirement to have 1,500 nomination signatures when mounting a run.

Nguyen said his campaign has been conducting stand-outs. “I don’t think endorsements translate into votes,” he said. “You just have to work hard to meet a lot of residents.”

Asked about what separates him from the other 14 candidates, Nguyen said, “I think they’re all good people,” before pointing to his “strong financial background.”

He received degrees in accounting and taxation from Bentley College in Waltham, and worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP before setting up his own firm.

He’s the only candidate who has had to learn English as a second language, he adds.

Nguyen attended St. William’s grammar school in Savin Hill and graduated from Boston Latin Academy. He moved to Dorchester several years ago, after his father, a pilot in the South Vietnamese army who was trained by the U.S. Air Force, died. “I wanted to be close to the family,” he said.

He’s also a Sunday school teacher, head of the Vietnamese American Civic Association, and a small business owner through his accounting firm, he said. “All those life experiences set me apart from the other candidates,” Nguyen said.

Asked about Menino’s proposal to raise the meals and hotel taxes in the city, Nguyen said small businesses are already struggling in the weak economy.

“Right now the city is suffering,” he said. “It’s easy to resort to tax increases. I don’t think that may be the best option.”