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SGV Connect 123 Interview: Chris Greenspon Talks with Nicolas Kiet Quach

CG: What's your name? What's your claim to fame?
NKQ: My name is Nicolas Kiet Quach, and I'm the president of the Alhambra Library Board of Trustees and I'm a candidate for Alhambra City Council, District Four.
CG: Now tell me a bit about your background in Alhambra. You spent your whole life here?
NKQ: Yeah. So my parents, they immigrated here in the 1970s. They, they lived in Compton for a little bit. But ultimately, they settled in the city of Alhambra. They've lived in the city of Alhambra their entire lives. They've graduated from Alhambra high school, they went to local schools here, and I've grown up here my entire life. I've lived in the district, and the same home they live in right now is the home that I've lived in my entire life. And I've lived in this district my entire life. So my parents have been here for a really long time growing up. We grew up on social services, we grew up low income. So we grew up on things like food stamps and medi-cal, that was my background. And when I first got involved in politics, my parents weren't super happy about me getting involved in politics, they obviously fled Vietnam, and they didn't trust government. So when they came here, they didn't trust government either. And they didn't think that someone like me could end up in politics. And that's what I've carried with me, the past four years and my entire career is make sure that we're reaching out to folks and letting folks know that government is here for them.
CG: Okay, that's pretty much exactly what I was hoping you'd tell me. So what's your favorite thing about Alhambra? Here's a softball question.
NKQ: Yeah, I think for me, it's the people. I mean, the city of Alhambra, it's almost 90,000 people, but sometimes it feels really, really small. I mean, the people here, they feel like family. When I look around my district, and I look at restaurants like New Noodle City, or I look at places like Fosselman's and are Vietnamese restaurants or the Asian supermarket. Those folks are my family. I mean, those folks have known me since I, since I've grown up, and those are the same folks who are supporting me in this race, because they've raised me and they're the reason why I'm running today. And I'm running for a community because they know me. So the favorite thing about Alhambra is the people.
CG: All right, well, you've given us a sense of why you care about Alhambra. But in terms of why you're running for elected office, is it because there are things you want to enact or change about your hometown? What might those be?
NKQ: Yeah. For me, it's always been about this community. I've worked for the incumbent Sasha Perez for the past four years. That's how I started in politics. I'm the only candidate in this race that has worked in local policy right here in the city of Alhambra and no other candidate in this race has worked local government as much as I have. And the first thing that folks asked me the day after Sasha won her race for a state senate was "are you running for Sasha's seat?" and I obviously thought about running for her seat for a really long time. Nothing was set in stone, as I was figuring out what the next month and what the next four years will look like. But I've always told myself that no matter when I run for local office, the thing that I care most about is, does this community want me to run? And does the district want me to run? And I mean, folks, were asking me run for her seat. But it wasn't just party leaders or politicos. But it was folks in this community right? It was community leaders, it was neighbors, it was friends, it was family, it was business owners. And that's why I'm running is because I know that I'm the best person in this race to serve this district and make sure that we advance all of the policy that we've been working on the past four years, the past four years, we've worked on things like affordable housing, the environment, talking about active transportation, having these conversations before Sasha got on council, we never had these real conversations about how do we rethink the box, right and rethink the issues that we've been talking about for a really, really long time, because for a really long time, it was either we do nothing, we throw money at the issue, or for a really long time, we had that conversation about expanding the 710 stub right? And obviously, those aren't conversations that we're having anymore. But I've obviously worked on local government for a really long time. When I first got into local government, I thought that everything was easy that you can come in with with a million ideas, and you can roll them through the city council. And that's not the reality, right? Local government work slow. Government in general works slow. One of the earliest memories I have of passing policy was as a student at Alhambra High School, we tried to pass a tobacco ordinance to ban flavored tobacco products and also expand the restrictions for where you can smoke and where you can't smoke. I mean, that seems simple, right? I mean, I mean, it's not a Democrat or Republican issue. It's like, Let's protect our students. And let's protect neighbors, and let's make sure that everyone is healthy. But it took six months. And I mean, there's a first reading, there's a second reading, and there's a really long process that folks don't know about and I think there are candidates in this race who are saying  let's reimagine the world and I want to reimagine the world but we need someone who has done this work He knows how to work the system to pass real good policy.
CG: Okay, well, let's reimagine is both the most hopeful and vaguest thing I've ever heard. So can you share a little bit of that reimagining, as, as you envision it, obviously, it's not something you could do all on your own.
NKQ: I mean, I think for me, one of the biggest issues in the city is affordable housing. I mean, it's an issue that we're just talking about right here in this in the city of Alhambra. But it's an issue we're talking about everywhere. For me, I'm a really big fan of mixed use housing, and mixed use development in general. But it's something that we've seen in parts of Alhambra. But there are some parts of Alhambra where we're not seeing that right. And there is obviously a big part of my district. And similar to folks that I know, and similar to folks in my family, they moved into the city of Alhambra in 1970s 1980s, they bought their houses for really great prices. And they're single family homes. Right. And they obviously don't, they're not fans of density. And I think there are a lot of folks in the city who aren't big fans of density. But the reality is, is that we need to build housing. And it's the choice between we need to build housing. And it's not just the idea of we need to build housing, but we need about affordable housing. And I mean, I've spoken to business owners, and they're telling me, we love density, right. And it's really different conversation that we're having with residents because residents are telling us we don't like density and business owners telling us we really like density, because it brings us more customers. And I have spoken to folks and I mean, I think what works out best for our community is makes us housing, right? It's the conversation around putting housing on top of businesses, to make sure that small businesses in the city thrive. But also make sure that we're not bringing density to where residents don't want density. And that's in the residential neighborhoods with their single family homes. It seems like the environment I've realized  in my work with with communities like ours is that I mean, there are going to be candidates in this race who are saying we want a green new deal for Alhambra. And that's great. But oftentimes the residents in my district and the residents of Alhambra, they care more about things like dog parks, or parks in general, right. And these are conversations that I'm having with residents, because we bring up this, this really big these big plans, and those are plans I want to push for but at the end of the day our residents care most about things like we want more Park access, we want to improve our parks, we want a dog park. For a really long time, we haven't had a dog park residents in our city had to drive to South Pass or Pasadena we temporarily had a dog park in the city of Alhambra for a while. But it was a temporary trial run and we haven't found a permanent location to build that. But residents have been saying that we want a dog park. So that's one of my biggest priorities is make sure that we build that dog park. And it seems small, I mean, on a on a grand scale. And what we're talking about is this idea of big proposals and big policy, but this is what is big to my community. It's also things like transportation. I mean, I think when we have that conversation around active transportation and how to reduce traffic, there are a lot of residents in my district who who don't like traffic, and no one likes traffic. But when we have that conversation around transportation, it's also there's also an overlap with housing, right? Because we build mixed use development than the folks that they don't needa drive around, because there's businesses under them and their needs are filled. But it's also a conversation around the funds from the 710 that were going to be used to expand the 710, we're not using them for active transportation plans, right? And it's things like bike lanes, but I think at the core of it, it's things about making sure that our streets are walkable, because there are a ton of businesses that are walkable, maybe less than a 10 minute walk for residents, but they don't want to walk because it's because it doesn't feel safe to them. And that's a conversation that we need to have and how do we rethink our streets. And we've obviously done a lot of work with groups like Active SGV and API Forward Movement to rethink our streets and how to make them safer. At the core of it, that's all great work that want to push for, but it's worthless, that's going to take six months, a year, maybe more than one term. And I've realized I'm local government. But for me, what I'm running off of at the core of all this is city services. I mean, as I shared my parents they're Vietnamese refugees, so they never trusted the government, right? I mean, we were obviously on social services, but for a really long time, they had this idea that you don't interact with the city more than you need to.
CG: And do you find that to be a common attitude in Alhambra?
NKQ: Very much so because I mean, there's a very big bulk of Alhambra residents that are either immigrants or the children of immigrants and for myself, too, and I've obviously worked in local government for a while in politics for a while. But I constantly find myself having this idea that, well, maybe I shouldn't call the city and ask them to fix the [?]. Maybe it isn't my place? And for someone like me, who is in politics and does work in this atmosphere, I mean, think about the folks who don't work in this atmosphere. I mean, they're just like my parents, they're just like my family members. And they never trust the city of services. So what that meant was, if there's graffiti, you don't call the city and ask them to fix it. If there's potholes, broken traffic lights, broken streetlights, you don't ask the city to fix it. For my parents, when our trash wasn't being picked up, and we obviously pay Republic Services to pick up our trash, you don't call Republic Services, or you don't call the city and say, "Hey, we pay for trash pickup, but it wasn't picked up." You would either wait until the next week and your trash is sky high. Or you grab the trash or your trash, can you load up into your car and you drive around until you find a dumpster to load it off of right. And that's the attitude for a lot of folks is that you don't cause trouble. And what I like to tell folks is that I'm running off of "I'm your neighbor first." Granted, I'm going to be your council member, and I'm going to be on the Alhambra city council and this seat is actually up for mayor, so I would also be mayor at the same time. But what I tell folks is that I'm not just running for city council, I'm running to be District Four's councilmember. And what that means is I'm your neighbor first.
CG: Ok, so it sounds like you have a strong grasp on pretty standard Southern California, suburban car culture. But at the same time, you in a City Council role would have to balance those predominant attitudes with a vocal minority who want what Streetsblog's readers want: more active transportation projects, bus rapid transit, more extensive bike routes and so on and so forth... and no money for freeways whatsoever. How do you plan to work with both?
NKQ: I thinki for me its about finding that balance, and it's obviously gonna take a lot of community conversations with all kinds of folks. Folks that are like my parents, who took active transportation for a little bit, but they've eased off of it, right? But I think the conversation we have is around community based solutions, right? I mean, what I'm really running off of right now is the Alhambra Community Transit, that's our local bus service. We've had low ridership for a really long time, the bus fee is I think, 25 cents, but folks aren't using it because the bus lines aren't going where they need to go anymore. The bulk of my district is residential, it's everything under - its most of everything that's under the 10 freeway, so everything south of the 10 freeway - but I think there's I think it's roughly 60 or 70% of folks in my district, they don't have access to a bus line. And oftentimes, it might take them longer to walk to the bus line than how much time they're going to spend on the bus. And that doesn't make sense, right? I mean, folks love the Alhambra Community Transit. And what I'm proposing is that the city already subsidize 90% of the cost roughly, what I'm proposing is that we subsidize the ACT fully, and that we expand the bus line. You know, there are a lot of folks in my district that rely on the ACT and Metro to get to school. But if walking to the bus, it's going to take longer than the time is actually going to be on the bus now doesn't make sense, right? And folks aren't encouraged to use the bus anymore. So I think it's about having that conversation with folks and talk to them on a community perspective, right? Because when we're talking about, well, we want to, you know, have bike lanes. And, you know, we want to do all this kind of work. It doesn't resonate with folks. But when we're having this one on one conversation on talking about, you know, there are students who are walking to school who don't feel safe, when they have to walk, you know, longer than it takes for them to actually be on a bus when they have to wait at bus stops that don't have shade structures. I mean, it's these conversations that we're having with folks that resonate with folks a lot. Right. So I think it's about finding that medium and also having those conversations that resonate with folks.
CG: So how do you envision outreach or more thorough outreach for these kinds of conversations, because in my two years at Streetsblog, going to these, you know, input meetings for incoming projects, I'm going to say at the outreach is pretty piss poor. If you have a two hour window to show up to after work, or maybe while you're still at work. And that's it. And then four weeks later, they come back with another little two hour window. And that's it, and then the project gets pushed forward and it comes out and maybe people like it, maybe they don't. But you honestly see at these meetings, sometimes seat fillers, and that's not a real community outreach. So what is it going to take and how painful is it going to be to have real, enduring and difficult conversations about building a bike lane?
NKQ: 100% And I mean, these conversations are not going to be easy, but what I'm imagining is that a lot of the input and conversations that I'm going to be getting is from this district specifically. I plan on walking the entire district and making contact with every single voter in this district. And, you know, I'm not going up to the door and telling them, "Hey, my name is Nick. And I'm pushing for these three top priorities. I'm gonna go up to their door and I'm gonna ask them, What are your three top priorities?" Right. And I think we haven't had that conversation for a while, because there's folks in this race, who are progressive, and they're obviously, there are obviously a number of folks in this race who are progressive, but they're coming into this race already, and they're assuming what the issues are, right? They're assuming what folks think about things like transportation or housing or a number of issues. But I think what we haven't had is understanding that my circle right now is obviously really a progressive, right? So if I talk to my friends, they're gonna tell me "Well, I agree with you." But I don't want to talk to the folks who agree with me, I want to talk with the folks who disagree with me. And I think that's one of my get out the door is having those conversations. So it's not just saying, "Hey, my name is Nick, I'm running with these three top priorities. Can I count your vote?"It's, "Hey, my name is Nick, let's have a sit down conversation. And let's really talk about the issues," right. I mean, it's not. And I mean, there are obviously there are community conversations that, that limit a lot of voices. I mean, when I first got on the library board, we never had conversations with students, even though they're the bulk of our patrons, because they come right here after school from Alhambra high school. But we've never had that conversation with them. And we've always assumed, well, this is what students want. And this is what seniors want. And, you know, like, this is what we think they want. But we have that we never had that real conversation with actual students and the folks who have the most barriers to getting involved, I think in this district, in particular, it's folks who don't speak English, it's immigrants. And it's folks like my parents, right? I mean, those are the folks who never get involved, right. So it's when when I think about community outreach, I think about visiting places where they would be, so thinking about our local public schools. My district has three public schools in my district. So I was thinking about going to the schools, going to the schools in the morning, and I mean, asking parents while they're dropping their kids off, right, or it's going to local Vietnamese restaurants or Asian restaurants or Latino restaurants and talking to folks there, right? Because those are the folks who are going to visit those places. But those aren't the folks who are going to get involved. And it's about meeting worth meeting folks where they're at.
CG: Okay, so to wrap it up, you've worked with Sasha Renee Perez for how many years? This is building to an actual question.
NKQ: Four years.
CG: Okay, so through your role working for councilmember Perez, have you been inside council chambers? Have you been watching the sausage get made?
NKQ: 100%. And I have stalked her for the past four years. She's the reason why I'm in politics today. And she's been my mentor through this entire process. And I've been there while we're organizing policy, when we're talking about policy, like Hero Pay and fighting for workers or fighting for small businesses to slash the fees that the companies like UberEATS, Postmates, and Grubhub are charging small businesses. I've been there organizing students and organizing our residents to make sure that we're coming out for that kind of policy. So I've been doing the work. I know the city council and local government, I'm ready to work.
CG: Well, those are great things to give yourself a pat on the back for, but what I really want to know is how torturous actually is the process of making these things happen? You know, a lot of people don't really know what goes into it. So what is it really like trying to do something like that, like make hero pay happen? For example?
NKQ: It's hard, right? I mean, there are a lot of community conversations that need to happen. I mean, typically, it's the it's the loud minority that are reaching out to you, right? I mean, it's not the bulk of normal day residents who are reaching out to you that are gonna benefit from this, but it's, the special interests are they're telling you, hey, we don't support this. Right. And I mean, I think it's a lot of conversations on how do we make policy that benefits everyone? So there's a lot of, there's a lot of attacks, and there's a lot of conversations that needs to be had. And obviously, these conversations are conversations that you might not be walking into the room thinking about, right? You might be walking to room thinking, this is the best policy in the world, you might be walking out of that room thinking, well, we need to tweak some things. And it's also about thinking about what is it going to impact right? I mean, when we talked about Hero Pay, it's obviously going to cost businesses more but it was only big businesses. Right. And I think there are some folks pushing around the this idea that it was gonna hurt small businesses, which is not the case is gonna uplift everyday residents.
CG: And how does that go working with, you know, a full council who I mean, the Alhambra city council, at least the current iteration of it, it doesn't seem too divided, but I imagine there is plenty of room for disagreement. So how realistic is it to say that, you know, you have a plan like Hero Pay, or something like a bike plan that people are going to have to wait X amount of time? How long would you say it's going to take to do something like that?
NKQ: I mean, I, it really depends right on the city council. And I'm back in 2020. That was the first year that we got our first democratic majority. And there are two independents on the city council. But I think how we've passed policy the past four years is we're not talking about this as a Democrat-Republican issue and saying well Democrats want more spending, Republicans want less spending. It's an idea of I'm not running as a Democrat, Republican or independent. I'm running for community. And I think that's what really resonated with folks, we had that conversation around the tobacco ordinance. And you know, there were folks saying, well, government's getting too involved, and government is going to restrict folks. And you know, that's just bad for government entirely. But then when we have that conversation around, who is it going to benefit? Right? It's going to protect small businesses, because during that time, we had that outdoor dining situation and folks want to go and dine outside when when someone could be five feet away from him smoking, right. And when we brought that up, I mean, folks were like, Well, that makes sense, right? I mean, we're we are protecting Alhambra residents, Alhambra businesses and Alhambra community and that's what we're most resonate with folks.
CG: All right, Nick. Well, thanks for coming on SGV Connect.
NKQ: Thank you for having me.
CG: Oh, thanks for saying it like that.