This is part of a wider trend of unprecedented grassroots enthusiasm for the 2018 elections. “A whole variety of people, who have never held office before, are getting off the sidelines in response to Republicans in Washington pushing policies that hurt their neighbors and their communities,” says Cole Leiter, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s not just doctors—we’ve heard from veterans, scientists, engineers, small-business owners, farmers, pilots, and more.”
This is the hardly the first time doctors have been mobilized by events in the Capitol. When Congress created Medicare in 1966, it also politicized a wave of doctors—but against socialized medicine. As the New Yorker writes, the American Medical Association launched an aggressive campaign against the program and created a political action committee to support candidates who would oppose it.
The latest set of political newbies face steep learning curves and significant challenges. For example, if Tran beats the many other Democratic candidates in the primaries, she would then run against Ed Royce—a veteran politician who has held his seat since 2013, following an even longer stint between 1993 to 2003. Tran, by contrast, has no experience in politics at all. “But I’m in the community, on the frontlines,” she says. “I think that will carry me much further than someone who’s been in Washington for two decades and doesn’t serve his constituents. And I’ve overcome improbable odds before.”
Tran grew up in Vietnam against the background of war. In 1975, after Saigon fell, her parents handed her and her three siblings to an orphanage, so they might be evacuated. Tran remembers puzzling over the sight of her father wearing sunglasses for the first time, and realizing that he didn’t want his children to see him cry. She remembers boarding one of the last flights out of Vietnam, surrounded by nurses, soldiers, and handicapped children. She remembers being carried off the plane by a marine in San Francisco.
The siblings settled in Oregon, and were eventually rejoined by their parents. They paid the bills by sewing, working in strawberry fields, and renting out the single bedroom of their apartment—the family slept in the living room and kitchen. Tran worked hard, and after graduating high school, she earned a scholarship to study at Harvard. While taking classes, she doubled as a janitor for the dorms. (“I thought picking berries was bad!”)
After graduating, Tran spent a brief stint as a financial analyst on Wall Street before getting her medical degree and returning to the west coast. Beyond her practice, she also helped to found two non-profits dedicated to improving care for people with leprosy, especially in Vietnam.
To compensate for her inexperience, Tran—along with Westin, Allen, and others—is getting help from 314 Action—a political action committee that was formed to help scientists run for office. They are currently working with around a dozen candidates, teaching them the basics of campaigning, helping them to find staff, and connecting them with a network of donors.