One of the first patients Dr. Mai Khanh Tran saw the day after the presidential election was a child with a brain tumor. It was this five-year-old that inspired Dr. Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician, to run for U.S. House. If elected to the seat for California's 39th district in the 2018 Midterm elections, she would be the second Vietnamese-American woman and the first pediatrician ever to serve in Congress. She'd also be the first woman doctor in the current Congress — and sees herself as an advocate for the needs of under-served groups, especially young adults.
Tran recalls the day — Nov. 9, 2016 — in vivid detail. The child's mother, a nail salon worker, had just obtained insurance through the subsidies through the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare). Terrified of what might happen should the family lose its coverage under the new Congress and administration, mother and doctor cried together. That's when Tran, a mother herself, decided to fight.
"I think the health care system is broken and needs to be fixed. Who's going to be better at being at the table to fix the healthcare system than someone who is a practicing pediatrician?" she tells me in an interview for Elite Daily. "For me, it's not even a want to run for Congress; it is an absolute need."
Whether Tran, a Democrat, will advance in the midterm elections will be decided on June 5, a year exactly since she launched her campaign. California follows a top-two rule, whereby the two highest vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, face off in November. The competition is fierce: The pediatrician is one of 20 candidates vying for the House seat in the primary to replace Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican who's held the seat for two decades.
Tran is poised to break barriers. If elected, she would become the first pediatrician in Congress, per the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, and the only female physician in the current Congress. Tran, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam at age 9, has been practicing as a doctor for the last 25 years, and owns her own practice in Southern California.
Medical doctors have been traditionally under-represented in office, comprising only about 3 percent of members overall in the last three congresses. Currently, out of 23 total medical professionals in Congress, only 13 are physicians; all of them are male, and all but two are Republican. Historically, this has also been the case: Since 2013, there has been only one female doctor in Congress.
"The past two years, we've had to deal with all of these health care issues and policies, we don't have a female doctor in the House or the Senate," she points out. "There are reproductive health issues, as well as some basic health care problems that women face, that I think have to be a priority to the current Congress. ... To me, it's not acceptable to not have a female physician with expertise in health care at the table."
She stresses the need for prenatal, preventative, and overall health care for women, as well as affordability and access to reproductive health care for young people, especially for those from under-served groups, including LGBTQ+ individuals and minorities.
Tran has been on the other side of the doctor's table, too. She received eight rounds of IVF treatment in her forties and survived breast cancer twice. "There was a time when I actually was so happy that I had the diagnosis of breast cancer on my chart," Tran explains, "because that was the only way that some of the procedures were going to be paid for." In fact, an MRI that confirmed the recurrence of her cancer was not covered by insurance; she had to fight get it covered. "So I understand what it's like to be facing an illness and all of the financial burdens and worries that come with it."
As a small-business owner, she's also been in the position of providing health insurance for her employees. Having the perspective of business owner, provider, and patient, she points out, allows her to "look at the totality of the health care system."
EMILY's List, which has endorsed Tran, couldn't agree more. "We desperately need a voice like Dr. Tran's in Congress," Maeve Coyle, deputy director for campaign communications for the organization, tells Elite Daily via email. Wearing multiple hats is what sets her apart as a candidate, Coyle adds. "Increasing the number of women in Congress is not just important for representation's sake — it's also important to ensure there's a diverse set of perspectives in Washington."
Tran is among a wave of candidates seeking office this year that come from outside the political establishment, many of whom are running for reasons close to home. (She's also the third woman candidate I've spoken to who works in the health field, joining an athletic trainer and a clinical psychologist.) According to the Congressional biography directory Tran, if elected, would join Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida to become the second Vietnamese-American woman in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the third member of Congress born in Vietnam.
Her successful career in medicine came from humble beginnings, though: After reuniting with her family in Oregon as a child, she helped support the family by picking berries. She earned the grades to get into Harvard, and worked her way through school as a janitor cleaning bathrooms.
Despite an impressive résumé, Tran says people routinely question her capabilities and qualifications for running for office. "People have a bias against people who have no legislative experience," she says. "When you come in as an outsider who doesn't fit in any of those boxes, I think people are a little bit wary of that." But as a pediatrician, Dr. Tran is used to having to get on the level of her patients — literally. "What I do in practice, is I talk to people, listen to their needs," she says. "That's what I'm doing when I'm out there campaigning."
Tran has been busy campaigning for the last 11 months and counting, and she says she's also the only working mom in the race for the 39th. She joins a cadre of working mothers — like Cathy Myers and Dr. Dia Winfrey — who are balancing the full-time demands of career and family with the pressures of running a political campaign.
"It has been really challenging," Tran says of juggling these responsibilities. "I was still seeing patients three days a week and taking care of a preschooler." She stopped seeing patients and took a leave of absence at the end of April; Mother's Day was her first official day off.
In January of this year, Royce announced he wouldn't be seeking re-election, leaving the playing field wide open for the competition. The race is incredibly competitive, in fact; both Politico and The Washington Post have named it one of the top ten House races in the country. The California Democratic Party has not endorsed any candidates, and polls have called it a toss-up. Per the Center for Responsive Politics, Tran has raised the third-highest amount in fundraising dollars to date, but the most by individual donors, she tells me, with $1.3 million as of writing.
But even if she doesn't make the top two, Tran says, the campaign will have been worth it. "For me, I've already won by throwing my heart and soul into this race," she explains.