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Andrew TRAN

for Texas State Representative District 149

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Asian Americans flexing political muscle in Texas

By Dave McNeely
Friday, July 5, 2002

HOUSTON -- For two days, Andrew Tran and his family drifted at sea off Vietnam in a small boat. The refugees were finally picked up by a U.S. Navy ship on July 4, 1982. Within a year, Tran was in America going to high school. And Thursday, 20 years to the day after that Independence Day rescue, Tran held a fund-raising celebration as part of his campaign for a West Harris County seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

"America has given me an opportunity, a gift to me beyond any price," Tran said. "Now I want to give it back." He is one of two Asian candidates running for House seats this year. The other is Martha Wong, who served three terms on the Houston City Council until term limits ended her council career in 1999. Tran, 34, is a Democrat. Wong, 63, is a Republican. Both are running against longtime incumbents. Their campaigns reflect a trend: As the Asian American population increases in Texas, so does its political clout.

Although just a small fraction of the state's residents are Asian -- 2.7 percent, according to the latest census -- they are part of a rapidly growing ethnic group. From 1990 to 2000, the number of Texas residents identifying themselves as Asian increased at least 82 percent.

Tran and Wong are blazing new trails in Texas. If elected, they will become or be tied for the honor of being the second Asian elected to the Legislature.

The first was Thomas J. Lee, a native of China, who was elected to the House in 1964 from San Antonio. Lee, a Democrat, served one term. He was narrowly beaten for renomination in the 1966 Democratic primary by Bill Finck.

The candidates are running in a region that is among the most likely to send an Asian American to the Legislature. Harris County's population is about 6.5 percent Asian, according to the 2000 census. Those of Vietnamese ancestry comprise more than a third of those; Chinese and Asian Indians are almost tied for the second-largest category; and Filipinos are fourth. The rest are from a dozen other countries of origin.

The Asian American Action Fund, a Washington-based group that helps Asian Americans seek political office, says Texas should have at least six state and federal offices filled by Asians, based on the percentage of residents who are Asian American. The state has none.

There are a sprinkling of Asian Americans across the state in local offices such as city councils, but the Texas Municipal League and others did not have statistics to indicate how many.

One place where Asians are a growing political force is Houston.

"They have a lot of clout," said Dan McClung, a political consultant who has made a living helping Democrats and nonpartisan city council candidates over the past two decades in Houston. "It's a growing community."

They tend to lean Democratic, though there are certainly a considerable number of Asian Republicans such as Wong.

Tran is trying to unseat Republican state Rep. Talmadge Heflin, in District 149, who was first elected in 1982. The district on Harris County's western edge stretches from Katy south to Alief.

Wong hopes to knock off Democrat Debra Danburg, who chairs the House Elections Committee, in the greatly redrawn District 134. Danburg has been a fixture in the House since her election in 1980.

Using the same wordplay slogan she used in her council races -- "Be Right! Vote Wong!" -- the former educator ran first in the March 12 primary against three other candidates. Wong then beat Mark Cole by 99 votes in the runoff -- with a considerable get-out-the-vote effort among the district's approximately 2,000 Asians.

Wong, a native Houstonian born of Chinese parents, is a University of Texas graduate with a doctorate in education from the University of Houston. She is a longtime schoolteacher and principal who says education is her top priority.

Same for Tran, who cites his own success as evidence of the American dream.

He arrived in Everett, Wash., at 16, unable to speak English. Three years later, he was tops in his high school class and went on to earn two master's degrees and become a Catholic priest.

He first came to Houston in the summer of 1992, working on a project to feed the homeless and improve housing for the poor. He returned here permanently in 1998.

But he quit the church a few years ago and has since become a paralegal and fallen in love with a woman and with politics. He plans to go to law school.

"I believe in making society a better place," Tran said. Though once a political independent, he said that after studying the positions of the parties, "I feel at home with the Democrats' values."

Tran, who proudly wore his cowboy boots and hat in the Cinco de Mayo parade in May, says the Houston district he is running in appeals to his idea of the American melting pot: 36 percent Anglo, 21 percent African American, 23 percent Hispanic and 21 percent Asian -- many of them Vietnamese.

Heflin has trouble remembering the last time he had a Democratic opponent.

"I have significant support in the Asian community, and I don't think that will be eroded," he said. "Obviously, whether you're Asian or Hispanic or Caucasian or African American, if you tend to have an alliance from a party standpoint, I don't think the ethnicity is going to make much difference.

"I think it's healthy that they're participating, and I'm really glad of that," Heflin said. He said he expects Wong to win in her race to unseat Danburg, "but I expect to win my race."

The 134th also was drawn by the Republican-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board to favor a Republican.

"We expect to win," Wong said. "The district has been drawn so that it's supposed to be close to 60 percent Republican."

Danburg disputes that, noting that Democrat Paul Hobby narrowly carried the district for comptroller in 1998.

"I tend to attract the same kind of voters that Paul Hobby attracts," Danburg said.

But there is new turf. Though Danburg hails from the River Oaks portion of the district that has traditionally voted Republican, she lost half of her base in the Montrose area, which contained a significant amount of Houston's gay population, and all of The Heights, where her family name was familiar because of her parents' stores.

Danburg said the race will be tough and expensive, but she's not conceding any votes to Wong -- including those from Asians. She said several have volunteered to help her organize. And Danburg, who is Jewish, noted that the district has several thousand Jewish voters.

Wong, whose pharmacist husband died in 1981, is a lifelong Republican.

"If you look at Asian philosophy and Asian way of life, it is very close to the Republican philosophy: family, education, entrepreneurial, thrifty, frugal, business-minded," Wong said. "And they're very conservative. . . . They have a belief that individuals should take care of themselves."

Tran talks about the same values and comes down a Democrat. But both of them hope they'll get a chance to represent not just Asians, but all Texans in the Legislature.

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