Twenty-four votes. 

When everything was tallied, that’s all that separated Tai Huynh from Nancy Oates in the race for the fourth and final spot on the Chapel Hill Town Council. The difference between Huynh and sixth-place finisher Sue Hunter? Thirty-four votes. Between him and seventh-place finisher Renuka Soll? Eighty-nine votes. 

The November 5 election was razor-close, yet it produced a historic result. When he is sworn in Wednesday, Huynh will become the first Vietnamese-American elected to office in North Carolina. At twenty-two, he’s also only the third UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate to sit on the town’s governing body.  

Incumbents Jessica Anderson and Michael Parker were re-elected last month. Huynh, a senior computer science major, joins fellow newcomer Amy Ryan on the council; both defeated the incumbent Oates. 

Huynh says his approach to public service was shaped by his upbringing.

“My parents were refugees from Vietnam,” Huynh says. “Growing up, we didn’t exactly have much. But I think that shaped a certain sense of community, because we always had a community that supported us. When they first came over, they didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have anything, and the refugee community in America really puffed them up, got them their first jobs, drove them around, helped with groceries, things like that.”

He was raised with a village mentality, with shared responsibility. His parents worked long hours while his grandparents and family friends took care of him. So even as an undergrad, he found himself wanting to give back. 

Huynh first became involved in town government about three years ago, after he formed a relationship with a Carolina Dining Services employee who lives in public housing, which in turn made him more aware of the town’s affordable housing crisis. He wanted to help, he says, and he decided that the best way to make an impact was to become a member of the town’s housing advisory board.  

After his appointment, he became increasingly involved in activism in Chapel Hill, especially with issues surrounding racial disparities. Dissatisfied with the solutions in place, he decided to run for the town council. 

He says the results—narrow as his victory was—prove that the town is ready for change. 

“My main priorities will be increasing the affordability of our community,” Huynh says. “So increasing the affordable housing stock, decreasing the cost of living for our residents, especially for our moderate-to-low-income residents, and then increasing socioeconomic mobility, so trying to get together and develop a workforce development program.”

After graduating this spring, Huynh—a Morehead-Cain scholar—says he’ll work full-time on his start-up, Acta Solutions, which sells software to local governments to enable more community-driven, data-backed decision-making.

Huynh says the election showed how important it is for UNC-Chapel Hill students to get involved in the town’s government. The school has 19,117 undergraduates; only about 14,000 Chapel Hill residents voted on November 5. Students have the power to make a difference—and in Huynh’s case, they likely did.

And while some students are registered to vote at their parents’ addresses, Huynh says he learned during the campaign that many simply don’t get involved because they’re overwhelmed by the many other things vying for their attention. 

That, he argues, needs to change.

“There are so many issues that the town is involved in that impacts the day-to-day lives of students—housing, police, etc.,” he says. “So I think it’s high time for students to become involved in the community.”

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