Kathy Tran has come a long way since she first arrived in the U.S. with her parents as refugees from Vietnam.
The 42nd District’s new representative in Virginia’s House of Delegates was not even 2 years old when her family fled their home country, but she still remembers the experience of watching her parents rebuild their lives in a foreign place with empty pockets.
“My parents had to structure their pay check to cover all the different needs in the family,” Tran said. “That experience, I think, really helped shape my perspective and motivates me to make sure that our working families have the supports and opportunities that they need to reach their full potential.”
While it did not necessarily inspire her to run for office by itself, Tran’s identity as an immigrant gives her insights that might be especially valuable now at a time when Fairfax County and Virginia are becoming increasingly diverse.
According to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, more than 30 percent of all people in Fairfax County are foreign-born, and close to 12 percent of Virginia residents were born outside the U.S.
As the state’s population becomes less homogenous, voters seem more eager to see their government reflect that diversity.
Elected to replace Republican David Albo as the 42nd District’s delegate after the incumbent did not run for reelection, Tran is part of a wave of first-time politicians looking to bring fresh perspectives and energy to the General Assembly, which convened for its 2018 session on Jan. 10.
In a Democratic shakeup that nearly resulted in a House of Delegates split along party lines after years of Republican control, Virginia voters elected 12 new female delegates this past fall, including the first Latina candidates elected to the General Assembly.
Del. Danica Roem (D-13th) is the first openly transgender person to hold elected office in the state, and Del. Dawn Adams (D-68th) is the House’s first openly lesbian lawmaker.
Meanwhile, Tran is the first Vietnamese American person elected to Virginia’s state government and one of the first Asian American women, along with Filipino-American Del. Kelly Fowler (D-21st).
While she did not set out to make history when she decided to run for delegate, Tran says that the importance of representation is not lost on her.
“After the election, I had a mom tell me that her daughter, who is Asian American, opened up the newspaper on Nov. 8 and saw my picture and was just so delighted to know that there’s someone who looked like her in our state government,” Tran said. “That story has stayed with me, the impact of that story, just in terms of making sure that our government reflects the diversity of experience and perspective of the people that we serve.”
A former U.S. Department of Labor employee who transitioned into immigration advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, Tran is excited about the wide range of work experiences that her new colleagues are bringing to the table.
The new delegates have backgrounds in law, cybersecurity, public service, journalism, and real estate, among other professional sectors.
Though the General Assembly is only just settling back into the lawmaking process, the newcomers hope that the diversity of their backgrounds and perspectives will help the legislature as a whole develop and pass policies that address the varied needs of their constituents.
Like the other Democrats in the General Assembly, Tran cites an expansion of Medicaid as one of her top priorities, a move that Republicans resisted throughout former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s four-year administration.
“I’m working with my Democratic leadership in making sure that we are able to extend Medicaid to 400,000 hardworking Virginians, who are right now trying to decide taking care of their health and paying for essentials,” Tran said. “Nobody should have to make such important decisions about their lives in having to decide between paying their rent and getting medicine that they need.”
However, Tran has also introduced a number of bills inspired by the specific concerns that she heard from 42nd District residents while campaigning.
Virginia’s Legislative Information System lists her as a chief patron for multiple bills aimed at helping military families and veterans, including one that would require public higher education institutions to adopt policies on awarding academic credit for military training and another that would establish a pilot program for supervising the return of military-overseas ballots.
After hearing from constituents that education was a priority, Tran introduced a bill to establish a science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) education fund to support programs in public schools with significant populations of low-income students.
“One of the top issues that people brought up [to me] was making sure that we have a world-class education system,” Tran said. “Part of that is making sure that we are tapping into resources that allow our schools to be able to expand opportunities and programs for kids.”
Tran’s other legislative contributions include bills that eliminate the statute of limitations for prosecuting misdemeanor sexual offenses, address overtime compensation for employees, and create an office in the Virginia Department of Social Services that would assist immigrants with the process of becoming citizens.
As the initial thrill of joining the General Assembly dissipates, Tran is eager to dig into the hard work of policymaking.
“It has just been tremendous to see our government reflect the diversity of our communities,” Tran said. “I also take very seriously the responsibility to be a voice for my neighbors in the 42nd district…Overall, I’m just very excited to be here and to work with my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, to ensure that Virginia is a place where everybody has opportunities to thrive.”