Viet-Americans embrace lawmaker

October 12, 2006


By Edwin Garcia
MediaNews Sacramento Bureau

At the home of Chieu Van Le, owner of Lee's Sandwiches, Assemblyman Van Tran (second from right) endorses Irvine mayoral candidate John Duong (right) at a party for Duong in San Jose, California on Sunday, August 27, 2006.

Jim Gensheimer / Mercury News

At the home of Chieu Van Le, owner of Lee’s Sandwiches, Assemblyman Van Tran (second from right) endorses Irvine mayoral candidate John Duong (right) at a party for Duong in San Jose, California on Sunday, August 27, 2006.

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Assemblyman Van Tran, donning a city of San Jose construction hat, digs his ceremonial shovel into the ground, turning the earth alongside dozens of local dignitaries on what will become the Viet Heritage Gardens in San Jose.

But it’s a short — often interrupted — walk through Kelley Park after the ceremony that best illustrates the high regard for Tran in the South Bay: A doctor offers to raise campaign money for him; Rep. Mike Honda gushes about Tran’s popularity; and an aide to San Jose Councilman Dave Cortese pleads for the assemblyman’s endorsement should Cortese run for county supervisor in 2008.

Spend a day in San Jose with Tran and one quickly comes to understand that he is the most important and influential political figure for the city’s sizable Vietnamese-American population. And for those who aren’t Vietnamese, he provides a critical link to a growing bloc of South Bay voters — even if he doesn’t technically represent any of them.

Tran, a 41-year-old Republican, was elected nearly 400 miles away in Orange County. No matter.

In San Jose, Vietnamese-Americans young and old, conservative and liberal, treat him like he’s their legislator. They invite him to community celebrations attended by thousands, shower him with respect that their local representatives could only envy, and frequently drive two hours to lobby him at the state capital.

“We feel like we have a friend in Sacramento,” said Helen Duong, board member of the Viet Heritage Society of San Jose. “Even though he’s not from here, he listens to us,” she said, describing Tran as “like an honored member of the family.”

Tran, who left Vietnam aboard a C-130 military cargo plane at age 10, became the highest-ranking elected official of Vietnamese heritage in the United States when voters in Garden Grove and surrounding cities chose him to represent the 68th Assembly District nearly two years ago.

Popular here

He’s been in constant demand for speaking engagements nationwide, especially in Santa Clara County, home to more than 100,000 Vietnamese-Americans.

But that popularity has come with a price. Tran now carries a concealed handgun — the result of death threats made by communist sympathizers. And not everyone in his home district is thrilled with Tran’s routine visits to San Jose, seven trips since January.

“If he is taking care of the issues of the voters in Orange County, then he can go anywhere he wants to go; he can go on vacation,” said Long Kim Pham, a Republican who lost to Tran in the June primary. “But first, he has to perform,” Pham said, criticizing Tran for failing to produce meaningful legislation.

On this particular visit in late August, Tran and his wife, Cyndi, a model, spent about nine hours in San Jose. She reads driving directions from scraps of paper, while he steers their Mercedes-Benz C320 from the groundbreaking celebration to a book-signing of a former political prisoner, to an impromptu visit for Vietnamese-language Mass, to a fundraiser for a friend — a Vietnamese candidate running for mayor of Irvine — and finally to a reunion of South Vietnamese army veterans.

“To many Vietnamese-Americans, not only in California but in the United States,” Tran said, on the drive back to his Sacramento-area home, “I’m a symbol of the burgeoning community.”

That’s not what his parents had in mind when they fled Vietnam with four young children in 1975.

Tran’s father, an English professor, and his mother, a dentist, wanted their children to work in health science.

“My family, me, and my wife, and relatives, nobody was interested in politics,” said Tran’s father, Dien Van Tran, 77. “Most of my kids are professionals — all of them are dentists except Van. He followed his own way.”

Tran, who grew up in Arkansas, Texas, Michigan and Orange County, where his mother opened a dental practice, became a student activist at the University of California-Irvine in the late 1980s, speaking out about the lack of freedom in Vietnam.

At a time when Orange County’s large Vietnamese-American population was becoming more politically active, Tran caught the attention of Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Garden Grove, who hired him as a district aide, and two years later took a job with state Sen. Ed Royce.

“He was young, bright, ambitious, articulate,” recalled Royce, now a congressman for Fullerton. “But also, besides being a fairly cerebral guy and very hardworking, he’s got the ability to motivate people.”

Royce encouraged him to consider public office upon graduating with a degree in political science. Instead, Tran went to Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., for a law degree and a master’s in public administration.

Auspicious start

When he returned to California in 1992, he volunteered as a community spokesman, interpreting to the general public the anger of thousands of immigrants who protested against a shopkeeper in the Little Saigon district who raised the communist flag at his video store.

“It’s like marching Hitler right down New York City or a Jewish community,” Tran said. “Like Castro going through Little Havana.”

Tran was appointed to the Garden Grove Planning Commission, then quickly raised $100,000 in his race for a city council seat.

Four years later, he sprang for the Assembly, which put him on a fundraising circuit into the homes of Silicon Valley millionaires who treated him like a homegrown candidate, a celebrity, even.

Chieu Le, co-founder of the San Jose-based Lee’s Sandwiches chain, presses an open hand against his heart when asked his opinion of Tran. “We feel very honored to have him.”

And so do local politicians. “The whole Vietnamese community is enjoying his successes,” said Councilman Chuck Reed, the San Jose mayoral contender who won Tran’s endorsement and couldn’t care less that the assemblyman’s district is in Southern California.

Linda Nguyen and Madison Nguyen also sought Tran’s endorsement when they campaigned for San Jose City Council last year, but he sat out the race. Still, Tran said, Madison Nguyen found an “assertive and creative” way to remind voters of the assemblyman’s clout: She uploaded a picture of herself with Tran and posted it on her campaign Web site. She won, becoming the first Vietnamese-American on the council.

“Think of African-Americans and someone like Martin Luther King, and Latinos and someone like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta,” said San Jose State University political scientist Professor Larry Gerston. “These people were far away, but if they gave their blessing to a candidate, it meant a lot to people.”

Despite Tran’s high-profile status among the state’s half-million residents of Vietnamese origin, his legislative work is considered low-key.

In less than two years on the job, Tran has yet to deliver any remember-me-for-this legislation. He’s introduced 30 bills; eight became law.

That’s not good enough for Paul Lucas, the Democrat facing Tran in November in a district that heavily favors the Republican candidate. “I don’t think he’s gotten anything done,” Lucas said.

Tran, who wears dark suits and neatly trimmed hair, counters that his performance shouldn’t be judged solely by the bills he proposes. He has vehemently opposed “bad laws that hurt the quality of life for Californians.” And he also said it’s hard to produce when the Democratic majority decides the fate of bills.

Assembly Republican Leader George Plescia of San Diego calls Tran a “very quick study,” and a “quiet, methodical worker” who promotes the party’s goals through his conservative stance.

`Awesome responsibility’

Tran’s fans see a highly effective legislator who backed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s executive order that recognizes the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam. They know about the time he protested on the Assembly floor when prevented from criticizing a visiting delegation of the Vietnamese government. And they’re grateful for his measure asking for a study to determine whether the shelf life of popular Vietnamese rice cakes can be safely extended beyond the four hours allowed under state law.

Being a political trailblazer, Tran noted, is both an “honor and an awesome responsibility,” in part because so many of his supporters aren’t confined to the geographical boundaries of his home base.

“I work extremely hard for my constituents, and my first priority is to the people of my district,” Tran said. “It so happens that being the first and the highest, I’m perfectly willing to work overtime and pull double duty in doing the extracurricular duties outside my Assembly district.”

He added: “I share the same values and ideals as a member of the Vietnamese community, whether I go to San Jose or New York.”

When it comes to plotting his political future, Tran, who is expected to be re-elected to another two-year term in the Assembly, makes no secret: He wants to join the House of Representatives one day.

If and when that time comes, his supporters in San Jose once again won’t be able to cast a vote. But Tran will be counting on them — and they will be counting on Tran.

Contact Edwin Garcia at or (916) 441-4651.

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