[POLITICS] Van Tran - 1st Vietnamese American Legislator in California
- Tran Is First and Doesn't Forget It for a Second
O.C. assemblyman is mindful of his unique role as a trailblazing
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
"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
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,
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
"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."