Tram T. Nguyen graduated from Tufts University in 2008. She then completed law school at Northeastern University in 2013, and soon after began working as a legal aid attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services. In April 2018, Tram took leave from her job to run for State Representative against Republican incumbent Jim Lyons in the Massachusetts 18th Essex district, where she moved to five years ago after spending most of her life in the surrounding Merrimack Valley. Last week, the Observer sat down with Tram to talk about her campaign.
Ale Benjamin: So how did you end up getting involved in that race?
Tram Nguyen: So, [as a legal aid] I serve seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, and other vulnerable groups, and in doing this…as both an advocate and attorney I’ve done legislative advocacy on my clients’ behalf, and have either worked on or supported bills at the State House that would improve the quality of life of my clients and everyone else in the Commonwealth. And in working on [those] bills…I’ve realized that my district has not had the representation that we deserve…I’m running as a Democrat against a far-right Tea Party Republican…he has been in office since 2010 and has not passed a single bill. And not only that, I find his positions to be so extreme that I don’t think he represents the values of the people of this community…he’s so far right that most of what he does doesn’t even get the support of his Republican colleagues, never mind the Democratic majority…and that’s why he hasn’t been able to get the funding and resources we need as a community.
AB: Can you tell me a little bit more about the 18th Essex district?
TN: So the 18th Essex district is made up of parts of four different towns. It includes parts of Andover, North Andover, Tewksbury, and Boxford. And the tricky thing about that is, number one it’s very expansive…you can see a lot of differences among the four different towns, and because I only have parts of the four towns it takes a lot of work to get to know the community… Now I live in Andover, and I think that this is a great community with hardworking people…This is one of the reasons why I’m running for office; our legislator isn’t advocating for us at the State House…and I want to change that, I want to be an advocate for everyone in our community…to work with people who need resources to have the quality of life they want, to be able to live, work, and raise a family. I’m in my thirties, I want to start a family here, and I want to make sure we’re funding the things we need.
AB: What do you think has been the most critical issue you’ve observed on this campaign?
TN: We definitely have heard a lot of concerns about common sense gun safety…and I think that [Massachusetts needs] to remain a leader in the country with our strong gun laws. We’ve seen that it works, because we have the fewest deaths from guns in the entire county. My opponent is 97% with the NRA, and 100% with Gun Owners Options League, the Massachusetts version of the NRA. So that’s very concerning to me. We also have seen concerns about reproductive rights, and making sure that we protect that right at the state level, given that Roe v. Wade is at stake at the federal level…I am very much an advocate of making sure we have safe and legal abortions available, especially because I deal with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault [in my work]…Our bodies should not be controlled by the government in any way shape or form, [and] my opponent is 100% anti-choice. Thirdly, the opioid crisis has hit Merrimack Valley drastically within the last decade or so…we need to take measures to not only work on prevention but also long term treatment for those who are already suffering from addiction, so they can be integrated back into the community and have the support that they need…My opponent focuses on criminalization versus prevention and treatment…and in fact, in the budget this past year he voted against funding for long-term treatment, and I think that is so misguided and short-sighted.
AB: What do you think has kept him in incumbency for so many years?
TN: Well, it’s been eight years; he came in during the Tea Party wave. He grandstands because frankly he can’t get anything done and now most of his votes are protest votes. But the problem is that most people don’t know that, or they haven’t looked into it and they don’t realize just how extreme he is. So we’ve been very effective at the doors, because I’ve taken time off to run the campaign full time. So every single day I go out there and door knock…and what we’re seeing at the doors is that people just have no idea. I’ve been in this district for about five years now…and for the first three years I had no idea how extreme my Rep. [was]…once they know his extreme positions on issues, most people are just as shocked as you are.…People see his name, their lives are not too bad, so they continue to vote for the incumbent, and this is why it’s so important for us to be at the doors…this is not a Democratic or a Republican issue; this is about an effectiveness issue, and clearly he has not been that effective.
AB: And what has that response you’ve been getting from voters on the campaign trail been like?
TN: It’s been phenomenal… Like I mentioned, a lot of them have heard of [Lyons’] name [but] don’t really know much about him, and it means so much for them to see me at the doors and have these conversations with me…people are pouring in to help with the campaign because this is one of the campaigns to watch this year, as you cannot get two opponents more polar opposite of one another…I am an immigrant, I am a woman, [and] I am committed to making sure that we’re building an inclusive, brighter, stronger future for the community, whereas my opponent has very divisive views and is very much anti-women, anti-choice, [and] anti-immigrant.
AB: Do you have a favorite memory or experience of the campaign so far?
TN: Honestly, most of my days are very memorable because I’m meeting so many great people at the doors and I’m seeing so much dedication from my volunteers. Even on the worst days, I know I have someone to call on…and I think that that is the beautiful thing about campaigning, is that it brings communities together…I’m leaving this campaign with hundreds of new friends, and you can’t ask for better results than that…well, other than winning!
AB: Congratulations for getting endorsed by Barack Obama! How did that come about?
TN: I am very lucky in that I have a very wide network and I am very thankful for my friends and supporters spreading my message far and wide and somehow I caught the attention of the [former] president himself! I was given distinction as a spotlighted race through the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). They work with Obama to elect democratic officials at the state level, and so my understanding is that [he] went through the spotlighted races and chose the races that he wanted to endorse, and I happened to be one of them….We are thrilled to have this support, we are so honored, and we hope that this will build on the momentum we already have to push us through the finish line to November.
AB: Switching gears a little bit – I wanted to ask about your time as an undergrad at Tufts, and if there were parts of your experience that led you to this path you’re on now?
TN: Absolutely. I came in to Tufts thinking I was going to be a doctor. And it was through my time at Tufts…that I discovered that perhaps I should pursue law school, and if I hadn’t been able to do that I don’t think I would have found my voice. It was during my time at Tufts that I got my internship to work at Greater Boston Legal Services and saw this other side of the legal profession where I could use my law degree to serve the community in a very profound way, and that was when I decided to go to law school instead of medical school. It was during that transition that I found an ability to speak up for myself and to amplify the voices of others, which is what I intend to do now as a politician.
AB: Did you ever expect then that you would end up running for a political office?
TN: I thought about it, I didn’t think I was going to do it this soon…but after the 2016 election, after my participation in the Women’s March, after my many attempts to reach out to my Representative and [not getting] an answer from him at all, I decided that enough was enough and that I needed to not only learn to stand up for myself, but also to stand up for those people whose voices have been lost…And that’s why I decided to take seven months off to run – that was not my plan for this year, for sure!
AB: So, civic engagement and advocacy are values that are pretty integral to the Tufts community, and many students here feel politically motivated. What advice would you give to students looking to create change, especially given our current political moment?
TN: So, I have to give a shout out to Tisch College and the opportunities and support I got from the folks there – you’re absolutely right that civic engagement and public service are key values of the school and there are many ways to get involved, in fact, many Tufts students have worked on my campaign…and I think that’s so important, to actually find these opportunities in the community. When I was at Tufts…I did an internship in a community organization and learned what it was like to be on the ground and meet the people, and hear their problems and actually work with them to find real solutions…that’s how we can stay engaged, and stay motivated and grounded and make sure that we are working together to make real change.
AB: Well I think that’s a wrap from me! Is there anything else I didn’t ask about that you wanted to add?
TN: I do want to add that I want to encourage Tufts students, if you’re interested, to please reach out to my campaign, but if not my campaign another campaign, because I’ve learned a lot from my campaign and I know the students have learned a lot…I think that this is the time for students to be engaged and activated, from everything that we’ve seen with the March for Our Lives, and beyond—I’m very encouraged to see what college students…can accomplish and we hope that you would turn to us as mentors…and take advantage of mentorship, because that has been the most valuable thing for me…even now I’m turning to my mentors to help me with my campaign and that’s something that I want to make sure students take advantage of early on, especially women.