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[POLITICS] Van Tran - 1st Vietnamese American Legislator in California

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  • madchinaman
    Tran Is First and Doesn t Forget It for a Second O.C. assemblyman is mindful of his unique role as a trailblazing Vietnamese legislator. By Mai Tran, Times
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 8, 2005
      Tran Is First and Doesn't Forget It for a Second
      O.C. assemblyman is mindful of his unique role as a trailblazing
      Vietnamese legislator.
      By Mai Tran, Times Staff Writer

      Running late, Van Tran hustled out of his office, quickly turned the
      corner and passed up a row of office doors before realizing he was
      headed the wrong way.

      Red floor? Wrong chamber.

      The red, he reminded himself, belonged to senators. Tran, the new
      Assembly member from Garden Grove, made his way around the Capitol
      until he found the green tiles, which would lead to the Assembly

      But familiarizing himself with his new surroundings is the least of
      his worries. As a Republican, he is a minority among Asian
      representatives. And as the first Vietnamese American legislator in
      the state, he knows he is forging a path.

      "I have to work doubly hard," said Tran, who represents a district
      with the largest Vietnamese population in the United States. "I
      realize and fully appreciate my unique sense of responsibility that
      being the first of anything carries extra responsibility and
      burdens, but it is also an honor."

      To help him navigate this unfamiliar territory, he has sought out
      the veteran politicians, community leaders and mentors he has known
      since his days on the Garden Grove City Council, where he was a
      touchstone for the community.

      The demand for his time will be extraordinary and Tran will work
      harder because his district has different needs, some said.

      "They call the office constantly because government is a mystery to
      them and they don't have anyone to turn to," said Assemblywoman Judy
      Chu (D-Monterey Park), who also has a predominately Asian
      district. "They don't speak English. They're so hungry for people
      who speak the same language."

      Tran has even stepped into his first controversy, albeit a small
      one. Tran, Assemblywoman Shirley Horton (R-Chula Vista), whose
      mother is Japanese, and Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi (R-Lodi) have
      asked to become members of the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, a move
      that the Democratic membership is mulling over.

      Since he arrived 10 weeks ago, most of Tran's days have begun at 8
      a.m. with coffee and a stack of papers from Orange County, Los
      Angeles and Sacramento. He looks for stories affecting his district
      and Vietnamese Americans.

      Then the 40-year-old rushes through hallways looking for the green
      tiles that will lead him to the Assembly session. While others
      mingle, Tran, seated in the front, is the only member to say "here"
      during roll call.

      On a recent day, he listened to Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-
      Northridge) criticize the slow, grueling budget process. Tran admits
      he can't speak with authority quite yet. He has chosen to speak on
      the floor only twice, adjourning a meeting in memory of his brother,
      Henry Tran, who died this month from cancer, and in support of a
      resolution to honor Korean Americans for their contributions in

      "I have to wait my turn to speak because first impressions are
      important and I don't want to say anything controversial or out of
      line," he said.

      During back-to-back meetings on a recent afternoon, he introduced
      himself as a former aide to then-state Sen. Ed Royce "way back
      when," to reassure them he was not new to this political landscape.

      Still, Sacramento has been a crash course. Named to the Committee on
      Business and Professions, he had to learn what it did. Ditto the
      Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials (a subject he
      admitted wasn't his strongest). He was also appointed this week as
      an alternate to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which is
      investigating Secretary of State Kevin Shelley for alleged misuse of
      election funds.

      "I'm not sure how I got selected," he told Assemblyman Ira Ruskin (D-
      San Mateo), chairman of the toxic materials committee. "But I'm a
      quick study."

      In other meetings, two lobbyists from Orange County wanted to work
      with Tran to promote a drug education program. A Republican
      consultant offered to help him analyze bills. And a Vietnamese
      language newspaper reporter wanted to know his stance on the issues
      relating to the Vietnamese American community, including a recent
      flap between Cal-Optima, which administers Medi-Cal payments in
      Orange County, and Little Saigon pharmacists over releasing patient

      "We're very interested in him because he reflects his community
      politically," said Thien-Giao Pham, 34, of Westminster, a reporter
      for Nguoi Viet Daily News, the largest Vietnamese publication in the
      United States. "His swearing-in was just the beginning. The real
      test is to see what he can do and what direction he will take us in."

      Aside from learning his way around the building, his first month at
      the Capitol is all about relationship building, he said.

      "My job is to build relationships so our bills survive, so I need
      the bills ahead of time so I can carry water on it," he said during
      a recent staff meeting. "We'll use saliva power."

      Tran defeated Al Snook, a businessman and perennial candidate, 61%
      to 39% in November, replacing Ken Maddox, who was termed out.

      The 68th district is made up of about 475,000 residents in Anaheim,
      Costa Mesa, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Newport Beach, Stanton,
      and Westminster.

      Vietnamese American constituents see him as a native son and have
      high — and at times, unrealistic — expectations of him. Last week,
      he had his staff call pharmacies and local Vietnamese American
      constituents to stop flooding his fax machines with letters seeking
      a resolution to the Cal-Optima controversy.

      In hopes of resolving the dispute quickly, he has worked with Orange
      County Supervisor Lou Correa — a Democrat — and state Sen. Joe Dunn
      (D-Garden Grove), keeping a campaign promise that he would not allow
      partisanship to affect his district.

      "Constituents, whether they are white, blue or green, have shared
      issues," Tran said. "Essentially being an Assembly representative,
      you're also a problem solver."

      He has befriended Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto), whom he sees as a
      mentor, and has sought advice from others.

      "I think by virtue of being the first Vietnamese American, coupled
      with his abilities, it will place him in a position to be great for
      the Republican caucus," said Maddox, who lives in Dana Point and
      runs a consulting business. "He's going to be a powerhouse. He's not
      an empty suit."

      His journey to Sacramento began in Saigon, where his father was a
      professor and his mother a dentist. The second-oldest of five
      children, he was 10 when the family fled the communist country. They
      settled in Orange County, where he graduated from UCI with a
      political science degree.

      Tran worked as a staff aide to former Rep. Robert K. Dornan and then
      state Sen. Ed Royce, who is now a congressman, in the 1980s.

      He moved to Minnesota, where he graduated with a master's degree in
      public administration and a law degree from Hamline University
      School of Law.

      He returned to Orange County, where he opened a law firm in
      Westminster and became well-respected and well-known for his

      Tran founded the Vietnamese American Voters Coalition, which
      educated voters on issues affecting their community. He helped
      organize fundraisers and walkathons for flood victims in Vietnam.

      His reputation expanded after he worked with police to end 53 days
      of protests by 15,000 demonstrators in a Little Saigon shopping
      strip when a merchant displayed a picture of a communist leader and
      the communist flag.

      As a candidate for the Garden Grove City Council in 2000, he
      received the most votes, and later wrote a resolution prohibiting
      Vietnam officials from visiting the city.

      In November, many Vietnamese American supporters cast their votes
      for Tran, hoping he'd promote a communist-free Vietnam through
      government channels. He won the election, making history as the
      state's highest ranking Vietnamese American.

      The new year began with his move to Sacramento and his calendar has
      been booked since with more than 150 speaking engagements, meetings
      and receptions.

      "There's a lot of wining and dining here," said Tran.

      Unlike some of his colleagues' sparsely decorated offices, Tran's
      oak walls are adorned with plaques — the small steps that paved his
      path to the Capitol. Among them, OC Weekly's Hottest 25 in 2004,
      with his name highlighted in red, and appreciation plaques from Rock
      N Vote, Sunny Hills Senior Center, the Korean American Foundation
      and Orange County One-Stop Center.

      At day's end, he returns phone calls and e-mails. Then proudly,
      Tran, a mild-mannered, articulate cigar aficionado, glances out his
      window where he gets a peek of the governor puffing a cigar in the
      courtyard tent below.

      "That guy shares the same history as I do as a former immigrant who
      had literally the shirt on his back," Tran said. "And look where he
      is. It's interesting that we're working in the same building. It
      speaks volumes about freedom, opportunity and hard work."
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