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Virginia's first Vietnamese-American legislator wants to inspire others to run

On Election Day 2017, Kathy Tran won her race to represent Virginia's 42nd House District in the Virginia House of Delegates.
by Lucas Vazquez /

Shortly after President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January, Kathy Tran gave birth to her fourth child.

She and her husband named their daughter after values Tran said the couple believed Trump stood against. The newborn was named “Elise Minh Khanh” — “Elise” after Ellis Island, where the National Park Service says more than 12 million immigrants coming to the U.S. were processed between 1892 and 1924 and “Minh Khanh,” which Tran said is Vietnamese for “bright bell,” inspired by the Liberty Bell.

“When I'm talking to people at their doors it wasn't about a larger party identity, it was about how what I wanted to achieve was going to be able to help them be in a better place.”

For Tran, her daughter’s name means “to ring the bells of liberty and champion opportunity for all.”

One month after Elise’s birth, Tran decided to run for public office.

“It was a realization that I had given such an aspirational name, and I couldn't sit on the side lines and rest upon the shoulders of this tiny baby this responsibility of fighting for those values,” Tran, a Democrat, said. “I want our kids to know that, as our country stays in this moment of crisis, we are going to do everything we absolutely can do for them and their future.”

On Election Day 2017, Tran won her race for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, becoming the state’s first Vietnamese-American elected official, she said, and one of the first Asian-American women elected to state office. Incumbent David Albo, a Republican who first won the seat in a 1993 election, had declined to run.

Tran said the 2016 presidential election and rising movements of white supremacy and xenophobia were motivating factors for voters to turn out to the polls.

“What we're seeing is on one hand the rise in nativism and anti-Semitism and racism, which has an opening and a voice to speak up,” Tran said. “I think, on the other hand, we're going to see immigrants and communities of color and LGBTQ communities and women speaking up much more loudly and much more strongly.”

A refugee who left Vietnam by boat with her parents at the age of 2, Tran said her family was offered asylum in multiple countries but waited 13 months to come to the U.S. because they saw it as a beacon of “hope, opportunity, and freedom.”

“What I’ve learned from the conversations with my neighbours is that those are American values, that they were cherished by people who've lived here for generations as well as new Americans, and that's at the heart of our democracy,” Tran said.

She believes that that vision of a diverse and inclusive society that values equal opportunity for all will be crucial for Democrats moving forward.

“When I'm talking to people at their doors it wasn't about a larger party identity, it was about how what I wanted to achieve was going to be able to help them be in a better place,” she said.

Tran hopes that her success as one of the first Asian-American delegates in Virginia will convince immigrants, women, and people of color to run for office and engaged in the political process.

“They say that you have to ask a woman to run seven times before she'll seriously consider it, and with the wave of women and moms who won on Tuesday night, you know for my own daughters — they're never going to have to be asked,” she said. “They will just know that this is something they can do.”

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