Man of the Town
Nguoi Viet, News feature, Jami Farkas Posted: Dec 05, 2007
John Tran isn’t one to let anything stop him.
Like his size. He’s just 5 foot 9, but because of his leaping ability, he played center on the high-school basketball team he captained — a position usually the domain of the big men.
Or like his age. He turned 32 just last week but is a veteran of Los Angeles County politics, first elected to public office at age 23.
Or like an attitude that just because something has never been done before, it can’t be done now.
He isn’t one to take no for an answer.
Tran, of Vietnamese and Chinese descent, is the mayor of Rosemead, Calif., a multiethnic city nestled in the San Gabriel Valley. Born in Saigon, he has lived here since age 10, growing up playing basketball on its courts and graduating from its schools. It’s a place dear to him, a place that he doesn’t think should be content to be just good enough.
He wants it to be the best it can be.
''We’re on our way,'' he said.
As is he. He is the only elected official of Vietnamese descent serving in Los Angeles County and is part of a group of a dozen or so statewide that is becoming increasingly active. He is believed to be the only Vietnamese mayor in the nation.
He says he understands and embraces the responsibility.
''There’s a lot of expectations,'' he noted. When he was named mayor in March—in Rosemead, it’s a post rotated among members of the City Council—''there were a lot of tears being that in Vietnam, mayors and politicians were appointed, and there was never an opportunity for democracy.''
Growing up, Tran didn’t have political aspirations, unless you include his election as sixth-grade treasurer.
''That was so far from my radar,'' he remembered.
He married right out of high school at age 18 and thought he might be a basketball coach. Instead, he got into the real-estate business, still his profession. At 19, he was urged to run for the local Board of Realtors.
A few years later, in 1999, and with some knowledge of the political process, he decided to seek a seat on the board of the Garvey School District, which has 13 elementary and intermediate campuses. His reasoning was simple: better schools mean better property values. Plus, since he was a father by this time, he knew he wanted the tops for his children.
''Things were happening in the right place at the right time. The schools were really in need of modernization,'' he said. ''My son was entering kindergarten, and I wanted the best experience for him.''
In turn, Tran gave Garvey his best.
Tran and the board started holding principals more accountable and encouraging parents to spend more time with their children on their homework. They held town-hall meetings to make sure the community was vested in district plans.
''We got more parents to be involved,'' he said. ''That was the real key. … My philosophy is children’s education comes on the backbone of parents’ participation.''
His goals when he ran for the school board were to improve test scores, modernize campuses while boosting public safety. By the time he left, the scores had risen; the state and federal governments had bestowed California Distinguished School and National Blue-Ribbon labels on some of the local institutions. Voters approved a pair of school bonds that never had been passed before, and the district made emergency-preparedness plans with law-enforcement agencies, he said.
One of his proudest moments came when the district got funding for two intermediate-school gymnasiums—another of his goals when he first won the post—proving wrong the naysayers who told him the district never would get the money. When he left the school board to serve on the City Council, his former colleagues named one of those gyms the John Tran Pavilion.
He said he, more than anyone else, appreciated what those buildings would mean to the young people of Rosemead. When he was a child, he walked 20 minutes to a park to play basketball. He wanted kids to have the same chances a little closer to home.
''Between 3 o’clock and 6 o’clock, those are the key hours. You get juveniles who are out there walking the streets. They become Good Samaritans or troublemakers.''
Virginia Peterson, the superintendent of the Garvey district, said Tran was an ideal school-board member.
''He grasps new things very quickly, and he immediately moves to the big picture,'' said Peterson, promoted to superintendent when Tran was the board president. ''That’s why it’s so exciting to work with him. He’s very motivating and motivated.''
He also saw what Garvey could become.
''Garvey is a low-income area, and many immigrant children come needing to learn English,'' Peterson said. ''His vision was just because the children, they come and are poor, that doesn’t need to define who we are and what kind of programs we offer.''
''He has a vision of the very best for the children…. 'We need to strive for this, we need to strive for that.'''
Eventually, Tran saw ways the city and its school districts †two elementary districts serve Rosemead—should be working together and he also had separate goals for his city. He decided to run for the council in the 2005 election and won.
''He’s always been the top vote getter. People were elected with 1,000 votes. He got 3,000 votes,'' said John Nunez, Rosemead’s mayor pro tem who served on the school board with Tran. ''That tells you that people are hungry for someone like him.''
Especially in a community like Rosemead. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 55,000 residents live in the city. Tran said about 65 percent are Asian Americans and 28 percent Latino.
''As mayor, you are the face of the city,'' Tran said. ''You are the chair of the meetings. A lot of the Vietnamese, a lot of the Asians, a lot of the Chinese are very proud that they do have a leader of their color. It’s a good feeling to know they are very proud of me.''
But he is more than just an Asian mayor, his supporters say. He is Rosemead’s heartbeat.
''At first political people used to look at him and say, 'Who’s this?' ''Nunez said. But when they get to know Tran, Nunez said, their position changes to, ''This guy’s got a lot of strengths.''
''He brings a lot of energy to the city,'' Nunez said. ''A lot of enthusiasm. He has a great smile. He makes you feel good about the city. He gets people to work hard. He has a lot of innovative ideas. He wants to do things quickly. He doesn’t want to start a committee to figure it out. His committees are working committees.''
Peterson said that under Tran’s leadership, she has begun regular meetings with the city manager to partner the schools with the city. She said Tran knows that if you want people to move into the city, they must offer good schools, and that he’s brought the same vision to the other facets of Rosemead.
''I see a great future in Rosemead that frankly maybe I hadn’t seen. It’s a city getting some good attention now,'' Peterson said.
Tran said many of his goals he’s already met. The city has initiated a number of events, such as a July 4 parade, to instill community involvement. Rosemead now has a Web site to better inform residents. Its leaders are working to bring in a nationally known supermarket to supplement the ethnic markets and to boost revenues and keep residents inside city boundaries when shopping.
While Tran accepts the responsibilities of being Rosemead’s mayor, he also embraces his place as a Vietnamese American politician. He said he regularly confers with some of the Orange County Vietnamese leaders and San Jose councilmember Madison Nguyen to share ideas.
''They do come and visit. We do share a lot of our experiences,'' Tran said. ''I look to (Assemblyman) Van Tran (R-Costa Mesa). …He’s done great things in Orange County. I’m a Democrat but share in the same philosophy. We’re here to serve. He’s been a great role model.''
He’s also becoming a role model to some of the newer —at his youthful age, they aren’t necessarily younger †elected officials.
''Being Asian Americans, our first instinct is to run a business. My family has always done that. A lot of Asians do that. When they get to politics, they are always afraid. Finally, we have a group of us willing to do that and be the voice of the community,'' Tran said. ''There are not that many of us. We need to band together and encourage more Asian Americans to run for office.''
The others in this select group recognize his contributions.
''Don’t judge John by his age,'' said Lan Quoc Nguyen, president of the Garden Grove Unified School District’s board of education. ''He’s one of the youngest, but he’s more politically experienced than most of us. He knows how to make use of the political vehicles to affect the changes that he envisions. He’s not shy about taking drastic actions such as replacing the most senior staff members or changing the leadership team if that’s needed. He has a strong passion as a community leader, and he’s willing to take the strong medicine to accomplish what he needs to do for the community.''
Tran said he will run for reelection in 2009 to continue the city’s progress. If he’s decided to seek higher office at some point, he isn’t eager to reveal that.
''With term limits, there will be vacancies,'' he said. ''I’ve been asked. I’m still considering it. There’s a lot of options, and it’s very tempting.''
Until then, he’s happy to be the face of Rosemead, especially when his constituents approach him on the streets or at one of his sons’ sporting events.
''They say, 'You’re doing a great job.'
And that’s a great feeling.''
Family: Fiancée Nikkie Cam. Children Joshua John, 13; Andre Dominic, 8; and Jack Dylan, 3 months
Education: 1993 graduate of Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, Calif.
Currently enrolled at Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier, Calif.
Last political book read: ''The Audacity of Hope'' by Barack Obama.
Favorite hangout in his city: The Rosemead Park basketball courts, where he first learned how to play the game.
The No. 1 reason that constituents call: ''Residents call me constantly to voice their desire for enhanced economic development and improved public safety services.''
Who, in his mind, are accomplished speakers: Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, eBay’s CEO Meg Whitman and Barack Obama.
His thoughts for the 2008 election: ''I absolutely believe this country is ready for either a woman or a minority to serve as our president.''
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