Alameda County Assessor candidate Phong La literally came to America on the back of his ancestors. Following the end of the war, Vietnam was a hopeless place once the communists took control. “They took everything, including my family’s boat. My grandfather had to go and literally buy back the same boat.” said La. So his father attempted his first escape. “He was hiding oil and water at different places so they wouldn’t know he was trying to leave. But they found his stash.” The escape didn’t happen. The second time around La’s grandfather believed he had paid off the right people in an effort to flee again. But they were wrong, and his grandfather was arrested and put into a re-education camp, essentially sentenced to hard labor.
Despair over the patriarch’s arrest led to a realization that the time to escape was now. A family friend told them, “I know your father was arrested, but this is the perfect time to escape because no one is going to think you will leave your father behind.” La’s father hatched a plan and the night before the planned escape he bribed the prison guards to release the grandfather. “That night grandpa came home. My dad said, ‘Get on the boat. We’re leaving’,” said La.
Departure was set for 2 a.m. but not everyone was accounted for. La’s father searched the village for family members who were instructed to be at different locations, rather than posted together at one location, so as not to arouse suspicions of local officials. “As my father tells it, he says he felt like, ‘If I could get my family out, I could find a way out later.” Some family members, though, were caught and left behind. When they made it to the boat, he made sure my mom, my sister and I were the first persons on the boat, said La. But his mother struggled to carry the 2-year-old Phong and his 10-month-old sister “My Aunt Gina, who was 12 at the time, she literally put me on her back and took me to the boat,” he said, stifling a flood of emotion in his voice.
After two days, a U.S. Navy helicopter spotted the vessel floating in the South China Sea and dropped food for the family. “The next day, the U.S.S White Plains come by, picks up everyone, and we’re taken to Subic Bay,” a refugee camp for people fleeing Vietnam in the Philippines. If they could get to America, they could be granted asylum as refugees, said La. Luckily, they had an uncle who had fled Vietnam 18 months earlier and landed in Union City.
When a photograph of a baby Syrian refugee lying dead on a beach went viral last year and posed a stark reminder of the horror that has befallen Syrians fleeing the war-torn country, it greatly affected La. “When I see that image it moves me to tears because that could have been me. When I think of these refugees today and think about what their struggle is, that’s my family story.”
“When I think about other people who have gone through similar situations it makes me appreciate everything I have been given and blessed to be an American. I could easily be in a fishing village in Vietnam right now not knowing what the world has to offer because I made it here I was able to go to college and law school. In Vietnam, I probably wouldn’t have those opportunities,” said La.
La says he never expected to be a candidate for county assessor this year, which is not a particularly surprising statement, based on decades of county election history. Alameda County Assessor Ron Thomson initially pulled paper for his re-election, but never finished the paperwork before the filing deadline. The move, known somewhat cynically, as the “hand-off,” has been used by Alameda County official before and allows a hand-picked underling to swoop in at the last moment to run for the seat. La, and three other candidates, then had to scramble to put together their campaigns before the end of the three-day extension for races whn the incumbent does not seek re-election.
In this June county race, one of La’s opponents, Jim Johnson, who already works in the Assessor’s office, is viewed as the status quo candidate. But La, through his strong roots in the Alameda County Democratic Party and connections to both south and central county, has captured great support from the establishment. Still, he has no roots within the often insular Alameda County government machine.
“Positive change is a good thing and I’m not scared to do that. I just want to come in and do good things,” said La. “With all due respect to those wo are in office, sometimes we need to change things up and shake things up and I think this is a good time for that.” During the campaign, he has argued for greater customer service for county residents, including digitizing the Assessor’s records and creating satellite offices. “We don’t have to wait for them to come to us, we can go to them,” said La. “Being from South County, you don’t see county government go to South County. It’s a mistake. The Tri-Cities, the Tri-Valley, they don’t feel like their being served as well.”
Even though Alameda County home prices continue to rise at a breakneck pace, some believe a recession is inevitable within the next two years. La says the Assessor’s office response to the Great Recession may have hastened the pace for families to lose their homes starting a decade ago. “We’re talking about hundreds of dollars a month in over-assessments that were hurting a lot of people. We have to be cognizant of it and provide temporary relief,” he said.
The assessor evaluates the fair market-value of a property in order to establish a property tax for residents to pay the county. Some assessments can be complex. La took some heat for seemingly suggesting that Tesla’s electric car plant in Fremont should be re-assessed due to its perceived poor treatment of workers. La later apologized for the comment and said the Assessor’s Office should have no biases and be apolitical. But he added that properties such as Tesla’s plant, which is stocked with state-of-the-art robotics will require the Assessor’s Office to better train its employees to properly evaluate the new technologies and whether the added value amounts to a higher assessment.
La grew up in Union City and attended public schools all the way through graduating from U.C. Davis. After college followed his family to Fremont and is a real estate and tax attorney. His start in public service began on Fremont’s boards and commissions. Four years ago, La, his wife and young daughter, bought a home in Alameda. The city, like many others in the county is going through a housing crisis, which La says should greatly concern everyone seeking a better life. “I feel like I’m living the American Dream. A refugee kid comes to American, is able to get a public education, a law school education, and is now a candidate for public office to serve the people he grew up with and in the county he grew up in. I feel blessed.”
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