The Women Running for Virginia: Kathy Tran

Del. Kathy Tran

Keith Warther for Courier Newsroom

By Alex Scribner

October 6, 2021

This is the second part in a series profiling the historic number of women running as Democratic candidates in Virginia. You can read part one on Del. Danica Roem here.

The Fairfax delegate and former refugee has a message for those who doubt that moms can get it done: Watch me.

“I think that there are still many people who doubt that mom’s can run for office, that they can win, and they can do the job of legislating,” said Del. Kathy Tran (D-42).

Proving doubters wrong, Tran doesn’t just run for office as a mother, she takes her kids with her to canvassing events and constituent meetings. Her kids have always been her inspiration, and she brings them not just out of necessity, but for a larger purpose.

“We’ve always involved them, so it’s really important to me that my children understand why we’re running and why we’re doing the hard work of campaigning,” Tran said. 

Running for her first reelection in the 42nd district, Tran is well aware of the challenges families of Fairfax (and Virginia) face while balancing work with running a family. Her husband also works, meaning simple tasks can pose slight challenges. A recent experience captures her personal connection to creating valuable childcare infrastructure.

“I had a dentist appointment a couple of weeks ago, and my husband had a meeting that he couldn’t keep the baby with him,” Tran recalled. “He’s still working remotely, so I brought in the baby and thought, well, let’s just try putting them on top of my belly. It went really well!”

From Refugee to Running for Office

Tran didn’t ever expect to run for office. With a master’s in social work and an interest in community organization and action, Tran worked at the Department of Labor and the National Immigration Forum. She focused on improving access to workforce and education services for immigrants and refugees. 

When she was seven months old, Tran’s family emigrated from Vietnam, after waiting 13 months for the United States to accept their application. Prior to fleeing the country, her dad practiced dentistry. But once he came to the US, he couldn’t get a license. It took 14 years of studying–while helping Kathy with her math homework, working as a dental technician, and owning a small business–before he got his license again. 

“For so many immigrants and refugees, what you do in the United States doesn’t line up at all with your training in your experience in your home country,” Tran said. “So, that was a really wonderful experience that I took.”

It was the election of former President Donald Trump and his clear contempt for immigrants and refugees that brought Tran into politics. She felt she could no longer stand idly by.

“[President Trump’s election] was the antithesis of the values my family had risked our lives coming to the United States for as refugees from Vietnam. And I was about to have a baby,” Tran said.

The baby girl was due on Inauguration Day and arrived a few days later: Elise Minh Khanh. Inspired by Ellis Island, ‘Elise,’ honors her husband’s family escaping antisemitism and immigrating to the United States. ‘Minh khanh’ means bright bell in Vietnamese, an ode to the Liberty Bell. For the family, Elise Minh Khanh means ‘ring the bells of liberty and champion opportunity for all.’ A month after giving birth, Tran decided to run.

“I realized I just couldn’t sit on the sidelines and give a baby, this tiny little one, such an aspirational name and then not do anything,” Tran said. “It was the right moment for me to stand up and speak out for my kids and their future.”

Legislating Inspired by Constituents (And Life.)

Since 2018, Tran championed an expansive list of bills not just for her children but families across the commonwealth. Among her top priorities are expanding access to health care and making Virginia more inclusive.

“As one of the first Asian American women elected, one of the first refugees, I’m serving in the House of Delegates to lift up the voices and priorities of immigrants and refugees in Virginia and making sure that we are expanding equality and equity,” Tran said.

The delegate cites constituents for the ideas behind prior bills and future plans, working with them to ensure their concerns are heard. While Tran is excited to get to work on her constituents’ ideas, concerns about her motherhood affecting her delegate-hood are still pervasive. Tran recalled a constituent being “really, really concerned about whether or not [she could] do this job with lots of little kids,” and didn’t support her in the primary. 

“He did tell me that he was wrong in that perception,” Tran said. “We’ve actually worked on bills together since I’ve been elected — a good, collaborative relationship, and I know he appreciates the work that I’ve done, but I think it was this ‘aha’ moment that he had and felt like he needed to share that.”

She has also championed legislation from her own life experiences. Tran helped pass legislation to support Mason Neck State Park, connecting it to the public water system and securing funding for new jobs–an important get for the understaffed park. 

When her oldest was a few months old, their first family hike and her first bald eagle sighting were at the park. At the time, the family lived across the border in Maryland. 

“That was my first time seeing the park, [which] is nationally known for being a home to bald eagles,” Tran said. “I just thought it was just super lovely that I’ve now come to live in the community, and now I come to represent the park in the state house.”

Focusing on Immigrants and Jobs

In 2018, Tran combined her advocacy work, education, and job experience to draft legislation for an Office of Immigrant Assistance. She introduced a bill that could go on to assist immigrants and refugees in securing employment, housing, and citizenship. Oh, and the equity she mentioned before? The office would also provide information to localities and immigrant service organizations regarding health epidemics and predatory activities targeted at these communities. 

“There’s a clear connection of bringing my past professional experience and expertise into my work now in service to Virginia,” Tran said. “I was able to hit the ground running in terms of reading and understanding legislation, and how to craft policy.” 

Though an Office of Immigrant Assistance doesn’t exist in Virginia, Tran told Dogwood she hopes to win reelection because she’s already starting to work with constituents for the next legislative session. This could mean a rework of the bills left in committee, new takes, or entirely new policy focuses.

Speaking of other focuses, Tran’s 2018 education bill aimed to provide grants for STEAM programs in elementary and middle schools. She introduced the bill with Del. Hala Ayala (D-51), current Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor. She wants the education her children are offered to be afforded to everyone. 

“Like so many other people, we moved to Fairfax for our schools, and we stayed because it’s a wonderful community to be a part of,” Tran said.

After a few years under her belt in the General Assembly, Tran has some advice for those considering a run for office.

“First of all, don’t question whether or not you should run…you just have to hop in with both feet right into the deep end and get going because we need more diverse voices,” Tran said. “We need more women, we need more parents sitting at these decision making tables, and it’s incredibly important that we have a government that looks like and represents the diverse experiences of Virginia.”

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