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Kathy Tran, Kelly Fowler – 1st Asian American Women In Virginia State Assembly

By Jennie L. Ilustre
 
Only in America can dreams like this come true. Kathy Tran came to the U.S. as a Vietnam refugee when she was less than two years old. Kelly Convirs-Fowler was the first in her family to graduate from college. Last November 7, these inspiring women made history when they were both elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.
         
Their victory is all the more remarkable because as first-time candidates, they were challenging veteran public servants against all odds. Tran’s opponent had been in public office for 24 years. Fowler was running against Republican Delegate Ron Villanueva, an incumbent with a record of service who was running for his fifth term, and he was also a Filipino American like her.
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Only in America: Vietnam refugee, now Virginia Delegate-elect Tran (D-42nd District).
“I am so proud to be the first Vietnamese American elected to Virginia state government, and to join Delegate-elect Kelly Fowler in the 21st District as the first two Asian American women elected to Virginia state government,” said Delegate-elect Tran (D-42nd District). “It’s high time that our government reflects the diversity of our communities.”
 
Delegate-elect Fowler (D-21st District) won 52.59% of the vote and became the first Filipino American woman elected to the Virginia General Assembly. “Protests and rallies can only do so much, we had to take our seat at the table,” she pointed out. “We changed the world Tuesday. We showed everyone that inclusiveness and fairness are our most important values.”
2, Fowler Election Night
Virginia Delegate-elect Fowler (D-21st District), second from right, celebrates her victory with supporters.
 
Delegate-elect Tran elaborated on the same theme. “I ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in part as a rejection of what was happening in Washington and across this country. I know many of you felt that anger and sorrow as well. But on Tuesday, our victory in the 42nd District, and in elections across Virginia and the nation, showed that Americans are not only rejecting racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and hate, but also that we are absolutely affirming that hope, opportunity, and freedom for all are at the heart of our democracy. These are American values and they will prevail.” (Read the full text of Fowler and Tran’s post-election statements near the end of this article.)
 
“Anti-immigrant, fear-mongering, and xenophobic campaign tactics in both Virginia and New Jersey were rejected by voters in last night’s election,” John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, said in an email reply the day after the elections.
 
Convincing Win
Top advocacy leader Yang added: “The strong showing by Asian American elected officials, like Kathy Tran and Kelly Fowler in Virginia and the first Sikh Mayor Ravi Bhalla in New Jersey, is proof that we can rise above hate and bigotry to represent the diversity of our communities and the growing population of Asian Americans across the country. Last night, we made significant gains in increasing the Asian American community’s political power and we’re looking toward mid-term elections in 2018 to keep the momentum going.”
 
          Indeed, the off-year election saw Democratic candidates like Fowler and Tran triumph in Virginia, as well as across the country. Political experts, however, say the Democratic “wave election” does not automatically insure victory next year in the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress. For instance, Democrats have to win 24 seats to retake the 435-member House of Representatives.
 
Fowler defeated Republican Delegate Villanueva, an American of Filipino heritage like her. Villanueva, first elected in 2009, was running for a fifth term. The race was “one of the more closely watched House contests in the commonwealth this year,” according to The Virginian-Pilotnewspaper, which endorsed her on October 25. The newspaper stressed that “she gives voters ample reason to believe she can represent their interests effectively.”
 
Both Fowler and Tran thanked their supporters. Tran said: “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving so much to this campaign, from door knocking, to phone banking, to writing postcards, to donating generously. In Richmond, I look forward to defending the values that we fought for together and fighting for the brightest future possible for everyone in the 42nd District.”
 
Delegate-elect Fowler noted: “Together we secured 52.59% of the vote! In the final four days of the election, our campaign had more than 200 volunteers who knocked on nearly 15,000 doors. Thank you for believing in our campaign, for your financial contributions, for volunteering your time, and for sharing our message with others.”
 
Priority Programs
Delegates-elect Fowler and Tran are part of the growing national phenomenon which saw first-time candidates, many of whom are mothers like them, running for public office in the November 7 elections. They vowed to serve their constituents and their families to insure the bright future of their communities.
 
Delegate-elect Fowler pointed out: “You can count on me when it comes to securing quality education for our children, healthcare for the most vulnerable in our community, and when it comes to helping our communities prepare for the effects of flooding. I also want to take the money out of politics and make redistricting fair so voters pick their representation, not the other way around.”
 
Remarked Delegate-elect Tran: “We also affirmed on Tuesday that we need strong communities where everyone can thrive. That starts with funding for our public schools so that every child has access to a world-class education. It means growing our economy and leaving nobody behind. It means standing up for our veterans and military families by ensuring they have the resources they need to succeed in the civilian workforce. It means expanding access to affordable healthcare, including trusting women to make their own healthcare decisions. It means finally making progress on preventing gun violence. It means nurturing and protecting our environment. And it means our communities, Commonwealth and country are welcoming and inclusive of everyone.”
 
Inspirational
Tran, 38, unseated Republican Dave Albo, who has held public office for over 20 years. The New York Times quoted Tran as saying that national Democrats should follow Virginia’s example by recruiting candidates from many backgrounds for the midterm elections next year.
 
Tran graduated from Duke University and earned her Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan. During her 12 years of service at the U.S. Department of Labor, she said she provided strategic national leadership and technical assistance to the public workforce system, implemented the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and coordinated other high-priority policy initiatives.
 
Later, she worked at the National Immigration Forum advocacy organization. She championed “policies that prepare immigrants in the workforce to reach their full career potential.” Tran and her husband Matt live in West Springfield with their four children, Daven (8), Charlotte (6), Quinn (4), and baby Elise.
 
Kelly is a former Virginia Beach public school teacher who started a real estate business specializing in military relocation. She and her husband Dave, a deputy with the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Department, have two daughters.
 
Kelly attended Tallwood High School. As a teenager, she began working at age 15 to save money “because I wanted to realize my dream of being the first member of my family to attend college.” Studying and working at the same time, she graduated from Virginia Wesleyan College, where she majored in Psychology and Criminal Justice. After earning her Master’s degree in Education at the Old Dominion University, she began teaching at Lynnhaven Elementary, a Title 1 school.
         
Full Text of Post-election Statements
Below is the full text of the statement of Virginia General Assembly’s Delegate-elect Kathy Tran (D-42nd District).
 
“As you may know, I first came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam before I was two years old. At the end of the Vietnam War, my parents refused to raise their family under oppression. We came to America because this country has always represented hope, opportunity, and freedom.
 
“I still believe in these fundamental American ideals, and I know they are worth fighting for. That’s why, after the 2016 election–with our fourth child due on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration–my husband Matt and I chose a name for her that would reflect our values. We named her Elise Minh Khanh. ‘Elise’ for Ellis Island, a beacon of hope for generations that Matt’s family passed through as they were escaping anti-Semitism at the turn of the century. ‘Minh Khanh’ is Vietnamese for ‘bright bell,’ inspired by the Liberty Bell. To us, her name means ‘to ring the bells of liberty and champion opportunity for all.’
 
“I made the decision to run when Elise was a month old. I had just given such an aspirational name to this tiny baby, and I knew that I couldn’t stand by while the values that inspired her name, and that my parents had risked everything for, were under threat. I knew that I had to step up and fight for them right now.
 
“I ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in part as a rejection of what was happening in Washington and across this country. I know many of you felt that anger and sorrow as well. But on Tuesday, our victory in the 42nd District, and in elections across Virginia and the nation, showed that Americans are not only rejecting racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and hate, but also that we are absolutely affirming that hope, opportunity, and freedom for all are at the heart of our democracy. These are American values and they will prevail.
 
“We also affirmed on Tuesday that we need strong communities where everyone can thrive. That starts with funding for our public schools so that every child has access to a world-class education. It means growing our economy and leaving nobody behind. It means standing up for our veterans and military families by ensuring they have the resources they need to succeed in the civilian workforce. It means expanding access to affordable healthcare, including trusting women to make their own healthcare decisions. It means finally making progress on preventing gun violence. It means nurturing and protecting our environment. And it means our communities, Commonwealth and country are welcoming and inclusive of everyone.
 
“I am so proud to be the first Vietnamese American elected to Virginia state government, and to join Delegate-elect Kelly Fowler in the 21st District as the first two Asian American women elected to Virginia state government. It’s high time that our government reflects the diversity of our communities.
 
On Tuesday, together we rang the bells of liberty loud enough to be heard across the country. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving so much to this campaign, from door knocking, to phone banking, to writing postcards, to donating generously. In Richmond, I look forward to defending the values that we fought for together and fighting for the brightest future possible for everyone in the 42nd District.”
 
Below is the full text of the statement of Virginia General Assembly’s Delegate-elect Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D-21st District) regarding her victory on November 7.
 
“As we watched our government under Trump this year, we ran a marathon to get to the point where we could make a bigger difference. Protests and rallies can only do so much, we had to take our seat at the table. I am the most excited about changing the tone.
 
“We changed the world Tuesday. We showed everyone that inclusiveness and fairness are our most important values. You can count on me when it comes to securing quality education for our children, healthcare for the most vulnerable in our community, and when it comes to helping our communities prepare for the effects of flooding. I also want to take the money out of politics and make redistricting fair so voters pick their representation, not the other way around.
 
“I am proud to stand up as a minority and a woman and have my voice heard. Taking my seat at the table is something I never even knew I needed to do.
 
“Together we secured 52.59% of the vote! In the final four days of the election our campaign had more than 200 volunteers who knocked on nearly 15,000 doors. Thank you for believing in our campaign, for your financial contributions, for volunteering your time, and for sharing our message with others.”

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