Lone GOP candidate for post sounds centrist themes
Dennis Nguyen started rethinking his career options because of a rotten year. The collapse of the American housing market and the resulting stock market crash of 2008 led to a freeze-up of investment capital here and in Asia, where Nguyen conducts much of his business.
Rather than trying to gamble in an increasingly risky field, Nguyen played it safe.
“I hunkered down,” he said.
Forced into effective semi-retirement, Ngyuen (pronounced “win”) turned toward community involvement. He took a teaching job at the University of Minnesota Law School, his alma mater, and joined the governing board at the Minnesota Historical Society.
As Nguyen sees it, his life can be divided by decades. His teenage years, spent in Southern California, were dedicated to sports: Nguyen played football, baseball and basketball in school, and surfed in his free time. His 20s were devoted to studying, as Nguyen accrued degrees from the University of California-Irvine, Johns Hopkins, his law degree and, later, a master’s in business from the University of Chicago.
In his 30s, Nguyen focused on business, rising through work at American and foreign investment banks before launching his own firm.
Now 43, Nguyen said he plans to devote this decade to public service. His first major foray into that realm was a hard-fought loss in an effort to join the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Undeterred, he decided to aim even higher with his next target, and is now the lone declared Republican candidate to succeed two-term DFL incumbent Mark Ritchie as Secretary of State.
Nguyen has gone from a relative unknown in the political world to the presumptive GOP nominee in that race. Earlier this month he was endorsed by 23 out of 28 Republican state senators, and next week Nguyen plans to announce a similarly impressive list of supporters from the GOP House caucus.
Though some question whether Nguyen has the requisite expertise to handle elections issues, Republican observers say Nguyen’s enthusiasm and moderate political profile make him a strong candidate for a statewide campaign.
“I think he’s been successful because he built up that base of support,” said former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who is serving as Nguyen’s volunteer campaign chairman. “He sold himself, and now he’s just followed through.”
Immigrant success story
Asked about their attraction to Nguyen as a candidate, more than one person said Nguyen’s story encapsulates the notion of “the American Dream.” Nguyen’s parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 and settled in Anaheim. His father worked three menial jobs, and his mother taught herself English before taking a job at an airplane manufacturing plant.
That personal story, and Nguyen’s subsequent success in academia and business, could help him connect with minority voters who might otherwise be hard for a Republican candidate to reach.
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, one of the senators who has endorsed Nguyen, said he also valued Nguyen’s background in the private sector rather than partisan politics.
“I think it’s probably good, at this point in time, to have someone from the outside — not within the existing framework of the party system or, for that matter, existing office holders,” Senjem said.
Also impressed with Nguyen’s resume is political operative Gregg Peppin. Peppin said Nguyen recently invited him out to coffee, but recalled that Nguyen waited until Peppin’s wife — Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers — announced she would not be running for secretary of state.
Peppin observed Nguyen’s interactions at a recent outreach function that included a number of Somali immigrants, and noted the Republican’s ability to build personal relationships with the attendees.
“It was connecting with an audience in a total non-political way,” Peppin said.
Peppin thinks Nguyen’s main concern should be about avoiding “unforced errors” on the campaign trail, the kind of verbal or messaging missteps that often hurt a first-time candidate.
Nguyen’s campaign is nothing if not ambitious. He plans to reshape the role of the Secretary of State, eschewing the simpler task of business filings into a more expansive approach that could connect new businesses with lawyers, accountants and potential investors. Nguyen thinks this reorganization could be done with minimal effort, arguing that business administration already takes up two-thirds of the workload at the office.
As to the more controversial topic of elections law, Nguyen said he does not think the state needs to choose between election integrity issues, as pushed by Republicans, and the voter access priorities espoused during Ritchie’s term.
“I want as many people as possible to vote legitimately,” Nguyen said.
Along those lines, Nguyen said he plans to avoid the topic of photo ID at polling booths altogether, arguing that any move in that direction could disenfranchise recent immigrants like himself. He also does not plan to run a campaign critical of Ritchie — “a wonderful public servant,” according to Nguyen — despite his reputation as a flash-point in conservative circles. Nguyen intends to leverage these relatively moderate positions to campaign in traditional Democratic strongholds like Minneapolis and St. Paul, which, he argued, Republicans have wrongly surrendered in the course of statewide campaigns.
Possible challengers for nomination
Notably absent from the list of Republican senators who endorsed Nguyen is Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake. The former Secretary of State, who lost that office to Ritchie in 2006, has said she might mount another run for her old position next year.
Nguyen’s potential opponents also include Kent Kaiser, a University of Northwestern professor and a former staffer for Kiffmeyer. Kaiser said he, too, is still thinking about joining the race, and knows of several other Republican elected officials who are weighing their options. Kaiser plans to make up his mind by January, and points out that Kiffmeyer’s first successful campaign for the office in 1998 began around that time.
“I think somebody could still come along before the [Republican party] state convention and take it,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser said pragmatic party delegates would look to someone with knowledge of the workings of the office, especially elections issues, which he said Nguyen lacks. He also said Nguyen is wrong to focus on the business side of the job, saying that side of the office functions as little more than “a filing cabinet.”
Also unsure of Nguyen’s candidacy is Minnesota Majority executive director Dan McGrath, who has been one of the leading conservative voices on elections law, and was a major booster of the voter ID amendment. McGrath said Nguyen proved “quick on his feet” during a personal meeting between the two, but said he, too, thinks Nguyen’s campaign should be centered more on working to prevent voter fraud.
“Obviously, from my perspective, I’d like to see more of an emphasis on election integrity,” McGrath said. “But that’s not really [Nguyen’s] background. His background is in business.”
Both McGrath and Kaiser expect at least one more Republican candidate to get into the race. Sviggum, meanwhile, thinks Nguyen’s early groundwork and organizational strength may be effectively discouraging other GOP entrants from running against him.
“I do think that’s held them at bay a little bit,” Sviggum said.
Sviggum thinks Nguyen’s willingness to campaign in DFL strongholds, and his ability to connect with independents and Democrats, will serve him well. Should the party opt for more conservative candidates in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, Sviggum said Nguyen might outperform his fellow Republican candidates by appealing to a broader base of voters.
“Dennis will be an extremely good vote-getter on the ballot in November of next year,” Sviggum said. “He will probably run better, with more votes in the general election, than the people on top of him on the ballot.”
Nguyen said his entry into elective politics has brought back the same competitive spirit that drove him to excel in sports, and which later served him well in school and the business world. When he talks about a possible match-up with either DFL Reps. Steve Simon (Hopkins) or Deb Hilstrom (Brooklyn Center), Nguyen’s eyes flare at the thought of the challenge.
Said Nguyen: “In the end, it’s all about trying to get to 50 percent plus one, right?”