The Rise of Kathy Tran from Political Novice to Elected Official

Kathy Tran's successful journey from political novice to elected office started with a commitment to a strong grass-roots campaign. Photo by Joel Luther
Kathy Tran's successful journey to the Virginia House started with a commitment to a strong grass-roots campaign. Photo by Joel Luther

Virginia Rep. Kathy Tran, T’00, has an extraordinary American story, one that has taken her from her arrival at age 2 with her family as refugees from Vietnam to being a rising star in Virginia politics. 

Little of that was planned. Tran never considered a political career until the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, when she decided to run for public office. In a surprise result, she won election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, making her one of two Asian-American women ever elected to that body.

Last week, in a kickoff event during Duke’s Homecoming, Tran spoke about her experience serving as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the ways in which her identity affects that experience. The conversation was moderated by Professor Fritz Mayer, director of POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service, which sponsored the talk.

Tran revealed the difficult ground work that went into her candidacy. She emphasized that through knocking on countless doors, she was able to connect to voters in a way that gave her hope. To Tran, hearing their stories “made it clear that the values I had – the values my parents had – are the true foundation of this country.”

She urged people thinking about running for office to take advantage of organizations that provide training for potential candidates. She used the resources of Emerge Virginia, an organization supporting Democratic women running for office in Virginia, but said she benefitted most by connecting with other candidates.

After the historic November 2017 election that flipped 15 Republican seats, Tran realized the political reality of being a first-term minority party member in a 49-51 split House. “It’s not just two votes,” she said. “You really have to bring over 10 to 12 votes” to pass legislation.

Her campaign was based on a commitment to creating a more representative political process.  One issue in Virginia is gerrymandering, where Tran said she called for politicians to think about the community rather than self-preservation. 

“When we talk about ‘one voice, one vote’ issues,” Tran said, “gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, voter access, and the census are my four-legged stool of what we really need to be talking about.

“It’s extremely important that our government reflect the diversity of our communities,” she added. That representation also occurs in activist areas other than political leadership: “Women are not just running for office. We are the backbone of campaigns. We are the backbone of the Moms Demand movement. . . . We are part of the movement to win back our country.”

In her district, key issues include expanding access to health care, supporting veteran and military families, having strong public schools and fixing transportation. Tran said her personal background informs her work in areas such as her commitment to the immigrant and refugee community. Fortunately, this issue remains a priority to her constituency as well, she added.

Tran fielded questions from students in the audience about her experience working in a part-time legislature, the significance of the census for immigrant communities, ways to approach immigration and refugee advocacy from a bipartisan standpoint, and recruitment to run for political office. 

In addition, Tran described influential components of her Duke undergraduate experience, especially her involvement with the Hart Leadership Program, which both opened her eyes to “what is possible in the world” and revealed “how to pursue career paths that line up with your values.”

At the root of Tran’s political work lies the value she places in community conversations. “When I knock on the door, I say, ‘I’m Kathy Tran. I’m here to learn what you care about,’” she told the audience. “You have to find out what people care about. It starts off with your values and why you’re there.”

The talk was cosponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke Career Services, Hart Leadership Program and Baldwin Scholars.