With her fourth baby due on Donald Trump’s inauguration day, Kathy Tran realized she couldn’t ignore the political climate or sit on the sidelines anymore. So, she decided to run for the Virginia House of Delegates. 

Tran—who graduated from Duke with a bachelor's degree in history in 2000—recently became the first Vietnamese American elected to the Virginia state government when she won the seat in the 42nd House District. She joins delegate-elect Kelly Fowler in the 21st District as the first two Asian American women in the state government.

“The moment is now for me to stand up for [my] values,” she said. “We want all of our kids to know we are doing everything we can for them.” 

Observing the 2016 presidential election cycle while pregnant, she said she became increasingly concerned with the direction in which the country was heading. Tran and her husband Matt Reisman, Trinity '00, named their baby Elise Minh Khanh—“Elise” representing Ellis Island as a beacon of hope for immigrants coming to America. The name “Minh Khanh” is Vietnamese for “bright bell,” a nod to the Liberty Bell. 

Tran said that with such an aspirational name for her newborn, she could not stand by while the values that inspired her baby's name were threatened. 

Her campaign focused heavily on the importance of developing a better public school system, which was influenced by her work as president of the Parent Teacher Association in her kids’ elementary school. She noted the importance of reducing classroom sizes and paying teachers well to make sure that every child has the chance to succeed. 

Other priorities include expanding access to Medicaid in Virginia and protecting women’s rights and access to reproductive health care. 

Tran is also passionate about ensuring that everyone, especially veterans and immigrants, has the support they need to succeed in the workforce. She previously worked for 12 years in the U.S. Department of Labor, helping with strategy and technical assistance in the public workforce system and connecting veterans with job training. 

She also worked in the National Immigration Forum. There, she advocated for policies that prepare immigrants in the workforce to reach their full career potential.

Tran explained that her outlook on policy issues has been shaped by the fact that she first came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam before she was two years old. Her family arrived with empty pockets and faced the challenges of resettlement. 

“Understanding those struggles and challenges that working families have has really shaped the values I have and the perspectives I bring to policy making,” she said, noting that figuring out how to tap into the potential of all Americans is one of her main goals. 

She also encountered challenges while running for office as a first-time candidate, having to learn the ins and outs of the political world. However, she noted that she was fortunate to have gone through the Emerge Virginia program, which aims to increase the number of Democratic female leaders in public office through training and networking opportunities. 

Although Tran said that she has always been interested in policy and politics, she never thought she would run for office since she is an introvert. However, in the current political climate, many people are becoming more engaged. 

“I think these are really compelling times,” she said. “Across Virginia, people are really stepping up to strengthen the fabric of our community.”

Tran noted that she gained insight into the importance of leading and serving through her participation in the Hart Leadership Program at Duke, which uses immersion experiences and courses to teach students the power of leadership in public life. Through the program, she worked in refugee resettlement communities in Boston.

“Those experiences really opened my eyes to how the federal legislation affects immigrant lives and different aspects of how to support the lives of immigrant refugees,” she said. 

Alma Blount, director of the Hart Leadership program, taught Tran in class and kept up with her career after she graduated. Blount, also a senior lecturer in the Sanford School of Public Policy, said she considers Tran a former student but also a dear family friend whom she respects as a professional. 

“Kathy is a person of strong conviction,” Blount said. “When she makes up her mind that she is going to do something, she does it.” 

Blount said that when Tran called her to tell her she was running for office, Blount wasn’t surprised because of Tran’s concerns about the country’s future. 

“She’s a deeply moral person and also a deeply politically-savvy person,” Blount said. “She loves policies and political participation. She thinks about things very carefully.” 

The Duke community as a whole has been supportive of her political efforts, Tran noted, with several alumni going door-to-door campaigning for her. She mentioned the election of Justin Fairfax—also Trinity '00—to lieutenant governor in Virginia, saying there was “something in the water” for her class. 

During her campaign, Tran said she constantly knocked on doors and asked people about their concerns. Many told her that they had never met a candidate for office. 

“We need to continue to listen to people who are living their lives and understanding what their issues are and how we can best serve them and lift them up,” she said. 

She noted that personally meeting people is key for anyone planning to run for office. Making sure women especially have the encouragement to start their own campaigns is important to her. Many women don’t decide to run until they are asked repeatedly, Tran explained, which is something she hopes to change. 

“What’s exciting to me is this past election showed that when women run, we can do it and we can win and we can win big,” she said. “I was so excited to see such a strong number of phenomenal women who won big not just in Virginia but across the country.”