OK, she's the only immigrant candidate for U.S. Senate in Washington in 2006. And near as anyone can tell, she's the first Vietnamese immigrant in America to run for federal office, a breakthrough that has gained her national attention in the Vietnamese community.
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Hong Tran was virtually unknown to the public before she jumped into the Democratic primary race this spring against incumbent Sen. Maria Cantwell. But don't count on her disappearing after Cantwell sweeps past Tran's antiwar candidacy come next month's primary. Hong Tran has a lot going for her.
Tall, outgoing, with a winning smile she uses frequently, once she starts talking, Tran is all business. As with many immigrants, it's impossible to understand how far Tran has come without understanding where she came from: a combination of privilege and tragedy. Her father was a South Vietnamese diplomat, and her mother the head nurse in all Saigon. Her family fled Saigon on literally the last boat out in 1975 as the Viet Cong overran the city. Tran was 7 years old.
The family was on a barge holding hundreds of fleeing South Vietnamese—and the tugboat pulling the barge abandoned them, leaving the refugees adrift in the open ocean. "As a kid," she says, "It was kind of scary." After three or four days at sea, the refugees were picked up by a U.S. Navy ship. Eventually, Tran's family made its way to a refugee camp in the Philippines, then to Guam, and then to Orlando, Fla., where a sponsoring family lived. That's where the Trans settled.
Tran says her experience with war in Vietnam shaped her from an early age. "My parents were very conservative," she states simply. "They wanted me to get a good job. I wanted to be involved in making the world a better place." She started in middle school by volunteering to deliver meals to shut-ins. When she was in college in Atlanta, a lecture by a Nicaraguan Sandinista activist, combined with reading To Kill a Mockingbird, inspired her to become a lawyer as a way of improving lives.
During her first year in law school, in Salt Lake City, Tran decided that she didn't much like her ambitious fellow students. She began to volunteer and hang out at a local legal aide office for the poor. Seventeen years later, when she quit her job to launch her run for the Senate, she was working in a similar office as a Seattle attorney advocating for low- income clients who are trying to navigate federal laws.
In addition to quitting her job, Tran is juggling motherhood with her campaign. She is married with two children, ages 4 and 7. She says it's worth it.
"I've always taken my citizenship very seriously. I've had all these opportunities in my life that a lot of people that fled Vietnam never had. The work that I did over those years was toward those ends. All I wanted to do was make life fair for everyone. Commenting to lawmakers on these laws, they're debating about this or that and spending million of dollars, and many times they don't even know what they're doing. I got so frustrated that the people we are electing to represent us are not doing so."
Tran recognizes that she got into the race late, but she says she's learning— and there will be a next time. "I can't imagine that I wouldn't run for political office again, because of the importance of politicians in our lives, my clients' lives," she says. "The Vietnamese community has been here for 30 years, but we haven't achieved the political influence we could. Immigrants can be a powerful voice."—Geov Parrish
Hong Tran's Picks:
Best State Politician: Spokane state Sen. and Majority Leader Lisa Brown (who was once a housemate).
Best Local Activist or Service Organization: The Northwest Justice Project, which provides free civil legal services for low-income and working families.
Best Song: "Give Yourself to Love" by the late Kate Wolf.
Best Vietnamese Restaurants: Green Papaya on Capitol Hill and the Tamarind Tree at 12th Avenue and Jackson Street.
Best Alternative Profession: Stand-up comic.
Best World Leader: Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991 Nobel Peace Price recipient and leader in the democracy movement in Myanmar (formerly Burma).