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February 27, 2007 > Exemplary patriotism

Exemplary patriotism

By Steve Warga

When 16-year old Heidi Pham swam through the surf of the South China Sea to reach the safety of a United States naval vessel, her thoughts were already beyond the immediate distress. "As I waded and swam to that boat with my two younger brothers, I decided that I would join the Navy if I made it alive to America."

For any who might scoff at this as a sort of deathbed conversion, Pham fulfilled her vow only a few years later, after first earning a Political Science degree from the University of Utah. "I joined the Navy and served six years." Her service may have been the first, visible act of patriotism from this intense, but warm and friendly woman, but it would not be the last. To this day, she continues a tradition of civic devotion that is a model of patriotism on a very personal scale.

Along with raising her daughter and son as a single mom; serving in various volunteer and charity organizations; and a full-time job as a probation community worker for Santa Clara County; Pham sits on the City of Milpitas Community Advisory Commission (CAC). Or rather, she did until Councilmember Alfredo Gomez moved to deny her reappointment during the February 6 city council meeting; a move that appeared to be nothing more than political payback from last November's elections.

Gomez' motion was seconded so swiftly by Councilmember Debbie Giordano it sounded like she was completing his last sentence. Although he did not name Pham specifically, Gomez clearly directed his comments to her when he said, "I had a number of problems with one of the campaigns that was run by this particular individual and I want to hold this commission to a higher standard." Vice Mayor Bob Livengood joined Gomez and Giordano in denying Pham's reappointment. Mayor Jose Estevez decried the petty nature of this act and concluded, "I feel so embarrassed" for the city's image.

The back story here is that Pham conducted a shoestring campaign for one of the two open council seats last fall and came very close to unseating Gomez. In response to his criticism during the February 6 meeting, Pham asserted that Gomez beat her for the second seat only after spending considerably more money than she spent. She also advised Gomez to consider carefully the poor image he was projecting by blocking her reappointment.

In recent interviews, both Gomez and Giordano indicated they were upset with Pham's negative website attacks against a somewhat shadowy campaign consultant and lobbyist named, Victor Oljouny, who resides in Nebraska, but apparently holds considerable influence in Santa Clara County political campaigns, including those of Gomez, Livengood and Giordano. Oljouny's consultant activities have been questioned numerous times in the past.

Although Gomez denies any political vendetta, he believes Pham maligned him with a couple of inaccurate inferences on the "Issues" page of her campaign website ( in a section titled, "Is it legal?" Here, Pham listed a number of council decisions that raised questions in her mind. Gomez asserts he did not vote on one of the five issues listed, and voted against another. Beyond that, he insists Pham's campaign rhetoric fails to meet the high standards he expects of city commissioners. In the first line of the first paragraph following Pham's list, she acknowledges, "Anyone of these 'wrongdoings' could be explained."

Pham claims one or more of her campaign opponents circulated false and misleading flyers questioning her citizenship, education, residency and even her command of the English language. No one ever claimed responsibility for these hit pieces.

The commission dispute took a turn more serious at the following city council meeting, February 20, when Councilmember Althea Polanski, liaison to CAC, read in its entirety, a very unusual letter unanimously approved by CAC.

Signed by Chair Chris Lee, the letter expressed the commission's collective outrage with the Gomez motion. Lee wrote, "Ms. Pham has been a contributing member who regularly attended our meetings," then went on to detail her extensive participation in CAC projects.

Referring to Gomez' comments on February 6, Lee stated, "We were shocked. We didn't understand why his personal differences with a candidate who ran against him should have any bearing on the business of this commission."

Quoting from Section 3 of CAC by-laws, Lee noted, "A commissioner may be removed for not attending or participating on the commission. This is clearly not the case with Ms. Pham."

SUBHEAD: Questionable priorities

Like every other municipality in the greater Tri-City area and elsewhere, Milpitas commission seats are chronically unfilled. Commission work frequently involves participation in long, often boring presentations, public comments and consideration related to city business. Sometimes the only thanks commissioners receive come from staff and council who genuinely appreciate civic service.

Considered in this light, the Pham situation grows all the more mystifying. With her reappointment denied, CAC presently counts seven of thirteen seats vacant. It's not as if the council is swimming in a pool of candidates so deep that political payback can be afforded. What's more, reappointment is almost always automatic, especially for a commissioner of Pham's obvious dedication.

The blunt, perhaps even unprecedented, CAC letter stirred the council to reconsider Pham's reappointment at the next meeting, March 6 at 7 p.m., City Hall, second floor. Public comments will be welcomed.

She risked her life to catch one of the last United States C-130 military transport planes to leave Saigon at the end of the American retreat. Despite loosing contact with the rest of her family, Heidi Pham pulled herself and her brothers from under the airfield horrors of "the bombs and the burning;" made her way to that Navy ship; and, eventually, to success and security in Milpitas, California, USA. She's been expressing her gratitude ever since, and not just in words. Pham's brand of patriotism is one of actions; she walks the talk in ways only a few native-born Americans ever even consider.

By the way, Pham's seat on CAC; the one that seems so threatening to certain incumbents is as Alternate #2; she doesn't even have a vote.

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