Can Democratic pediatrician Mai-Khanh Tran unseat one of the most powerful House Republicans in 2018?

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

FOUNTAIN VALLEY, Calif. — In many ways, Dr. Mai-Khanh Tran isn’t all that different from millions of other Democrats who have been dismayed or depressed or indignant since Donald Trump was elected president.

On election night, Tran watched in shock as the returns rolled in. The next morning, she wept at work — Tran is a pediatrician — with her colleagues. Later, she joined the protesters shouting slogans and waving signs outside the Orange County offices of several Republican congressmen.

But Tran didn’t stop there. Last month, she actually decided to enter elected politics herself, launching a long-shot campaign to unseat 12-term Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

While defeating Royce may seem like a tall order for a political novice, Tran, 51, has already spent her entire life overcoming impossible odds.

In 1975, Tran arrived in America as a 9-year-old refugee from war-torn Vietnam — without her parents. She spent her summers picking strawberries in rural Oregon, eventually working her way through college at Harvard as a janitor. And she survived two bouts of breast cancer and endured eight rounds of in vitro fertilization before finally getting pregnant at age 46.

“I think you’ve got to have total commitment to everything you do in life,” Tran said on a recent Thursday afternoon as she sipped from a bowl of bone-in kalbi soup on the patio of a new pan-Asian restaurant in Orange County’s Little Saigon. “You’ve got to do things for the right reasons. And when you have the right reasons — if what you’re doing is needed, on behalf of others — you will do it until you succeed. I truly believe that.”

Whether Tran can succeed her in mission to topple Royce remains to be seen. But if any place encapsulates the challenges facing Republicans in 2018, Orange County is it. And if any Democratic hopeful embodies the political crosscurrents that will likely define the coming midterms, Tran may be the one.

Topping the list of those forces? Health care.

The first patient Tran saw the morning after the election was a child with a brain tumor. The girl’s mother, a local nail salon worker, couldn’t get health insurance for her children until Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Realizing that her coverage might change under Republican rule — that “this was going to affect her daughter’s life soon” — the two women cried together in Tran’s examination room.

A few months later, the mother called Tran. The House had just passed the American Health Care Act — the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill — and she was, according to Tran, “petrified.”

Dr. Mai-Khanh Tran currently works as a pediatrician in Orange County, Calif. (Photo: Courtesy of Facebook)

That’s when Tran decided to run for Congress.

“It was the speed of that vote, the secret way it was done, that just pushed me,” Tran told Yahoo News, noting that she had spent the previous three months appearing on local Vietnamese-language TV to explain what was at stake. “I thought, ‘We can do all the prep work, all the work to inform the public, but when it comes down to it, their voice just isn’t there where it matters. On the floor. In the caucuses. All of the meetings.’ It just made me so angry. And I said, ‘You know what? We need to have people who really understand health care in Washington. We need to be in the game.’”

As the Republican Senate struggles to pass its own version of a bill to repeal Obamacare, health care is shaping up to be the central issue in 2018.

In part, that’s because 217 GOP House members — including all four Orange County Republicans — voted for the AHCA, a deeply unpopular measure that even President Trump has called “mean.” Democrats plan to spend millions of dollars between now and next November reminding voters of this fact.

The so-called resistance to Trump — and, more specifically, the resistance to his party’s Obamacare repeal push — has inspired newcomers like Tran, many of whom are also doctors or scientists or women, to get off the sidelines and run for office themselves.

The result is a rookie class of grassroots candidates rallying around a potent message. The question is whether fresh faces and passionate resistance will be enough to flip the 24 seats Democrats need to regain control of the House.

Opportunity in Orange County

Despite its conservative past — Orange County voted for the GOP candidate in every presidential election from 1936 to 2012 — the O.C. now overlaps with the districts of four of the 25 most vulnerable Republicans in Congress: Darrell Issa, Dana Rohrabacher, Mimi Walters and Ed Royce. Hillary Clinton captured all four of their districts in the 2016 presidential race — a first for a Democrat — and won the county as a whole by 9 percentage points. A growing minority population, a concentration of college-educated whites and a declining GOP registration advantage are making the area more and more treacherous for Republicans, especially with Trump in the White House. Democrats have taken notice, fielding several promising candidates, including multimillionaire stem-cell pioneer Hans Keirstead; real estate entrepreneur Harley Rouda; environmental activist Mike Levin; and retired U.S. Marine Col. Doug Applegate.

“It’s districts like these that will decide whether the Democrats can make a serious run at control of the House,” the New York Times’ Nate Cohn recently wrote.

Political novice

In person, Tran doesn’t seem like a politician. Petite, with a few gray hairs peeking through an otherwise black bob, she trembles slightly when she starts to answer a question, her soft voice starting and stopping and wavering as she struggles for the right words to express her views, none of which have yet been scripted for her by some cadre of consultants. She apologized for “not being good at this,” and teared up four times over the course of a two-hour conversation. At one point, she unleashes a few choice words about Donald Trump, then said, “This is off the record,” which prompts her sole campaign adviser to laugh and explain that “you have to say you’re off the record before you say something, Mai-Khanh.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Tran said.

But Tran’s outward gentleness masks a fierce inner strength that has been fostered by decades of unimaginable hardship and improbable success.

Of her childhood in Vietnam, the things Tran remembers most are the near-constant explosions. “Every night, every other night, there would be bombs going off,” she said. “We’d all go into a little space under staircase. We’d hear the bomb go by — zoom! — and we’d run in there.”

One day in early 1975, Tran’s father, a prominent Saigon judge, took her and her three siblings, the youngest of whom was still wearing diapers, to a local Catholic orphanage, leaving them behind without any explanation. Tran recalls that her father was wearing sunglasses, but only later did she realize that he must have been crying.

“It was an act of total desperation on my dad’s part,” Tran said. “A lot of people were giving up their children so they could get them out. This was their last resort.”

The U.S. military airlifted Tran and her siblings to San Francisco, where “big Marines” carried each of them off the plane. “I tell you, even today, if I see a guy in uniform, I really do get so emotional,” Tran said. “I still am so grateful and humble.”

Eventually, the children ended up at a convent in Salem, Ore. Six months later, their parents, who escaped Vietnam during the fall of Saigon, joined them. In America, Tran’s father could no longer work as a judge; the closest he came was a gig cleaning the local courthouse. To make ends meet, the Trans rented out their apartment’s single bedroom to a college student while the six of them slept together in the living room.

“My first Fourth of July celebration was in 1976 — the bicentennial,” Tran said. “The fireworks were huge. And I was cowering in fear. It was so loud, like bombs. Even to this day, I don’t like fireworks.”

Inspired by her grandfather, a traditional medicine man, Tran decided early on that she wanted to be a doctor. Every moment she wasn’t working was spent reading. After four years at an inner-city high school in Portland — she and her friends were bused in from the Vietnamese “ghetto” — Tran graduated first in her class and was accepted by Harvard.

“Maybe because I am an immigrant, I feel like I need to know more,” Tran said. “I need to know more and do more.”

Tran loved her college experience, but it wasn’t exactly easy. Without money for a hotel, her father was forced to request Freshman Weekend accommodations from random Vietnamese locals, and Tran paid her way through school with three simultaneous jobs — janitor, security guard and reader for the blind.

“I cleaned the jocks’ dorm,” she said. “The rich kids’ dorm. And, you know, they throw out a lot of things. I remember picking up things that we could use. I don’t think I ever felt like I belonged there.”

A stint as a health care analyst on Wall Street followed, then medical school at Brown-Dartmouth. After her residency at UCLA, Tran started her own practice in Fountain Valley, where she has spent the last 25 years treating working-class immigrants, educating the community and leading thrice-yearly medical missions to hot spots around the world — leper colonies in the Vietnamese jungle, typhoon-ravaged villages in the Philippines, impoverished neighborhoods in Tijuana.

That experience, she says, is what has convinced her she’s ready for Congress.

“We have to figure out how we’re going to feed these people,” Tran explained. “We help them with job training. We set up farms for them. We set up revolving loans for them. We do clean water. We make sure their kids get the education they need. As a congresswoman, I plan to bring that sort of comprehensive approach to my community and my constituents.”

Tran’s successful battles with breast cancer and infertility have convinced those around her that she can succeed in the political arena as well.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., at a news conference on Capitol Hill, Sept. 21, 2016. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

“She’s like Wonder Woman,” said adviser Courtni Pugh, whose other clients include Kevin de Leon, California Senate president pro tempore. “Everything Mai-Khanh has overcome in her life? We need to create, like, a meme. We’ll put her in a red cape.”

Uphill climb

Wonder Woman or not, Tran is still a serious underdog in the race against Royce. If she wins the Democratic primary — her opponent is former chemistry professor Phil Janowicz — she’ll be facing off against a politician who’s been winning elections for as long as she’s been a pediatrician.

Incumbency isn’t Royce’s only advantage either. Even though Clinton won CA-39, Royce was easily reelected with 57 percent of the vote, and he’s the most popular of the four vulnerable Orange County Republicans. He’s also a prodigious fundraiser, with $2.8 million already stockpiled for 2018.

Tran believes the same demographic shifts that boosted Clinton to victory throughout Orange County could work in her favor. CA-39, for example, is more than 60 percent Asian and Hispanic — and only 34 percent white. Many of these whites are exactly the sort of college-educated suburbanites Trump lost in November, and while older Vietnamese-Americans have voted Republican for decades — like older Cuban-Americans, they tend to be staunch anti-Communists — their children have been registering as Democrats or independents.

For now, Tran is focused on getting her fledging campaign up and running. She’s talking to potential hires. She’s sounding out local politicos. And she’s spending hours every afternoon in her garage, dialing for dollars.

The work can be grueling. Devastated after one particularly fruitless fundraising session, Tran looked up to see her aging mother leaning over her. “Do you need me to give you my last gold nugget?” her mother said, referring to the small bars that she and other refugees had brought with them to America more than four decades ago, just in case. “You know, to help your campaign?”

Tran had to remind herself that the road ahead would be long — and that she was running for the right reasons.

“It was my mom who, throughout the years, said, ‘You’ve got to help people, you’ve got to speak for people,” Tran explained. “So if there’s an opportunity here, it is for a Democrat who resonates and listens. And so I go back to what makes me a good candidate: I’m a good listener. As a physician, that’s all I do. I listen to my patients. I listen to their pain, their suffering, their concerns. That’s what I’m good at. Then hopefully I’ll try to find a solution that might alleviate their pain, their suffering, their concerns.

“I don’t think that’s what people are doing in the political sphere right now,” Tran continued. “They have agendas. They have ideas they’re trying to push. But they’re not listening to their constituents. More and more, their constituents in these districts have changed so much; their needs have changed so much. And it’s just not connecting with the people who are currently representing them.”

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