Incoming Morrow City Councilwoman Hang Tran, center, takes the oath of office from Clayton County Superior Court Judge Geronda Carter Friday night. Tran is the first Vietnamese woman to ever hold an elected office in Georgia, according to an official Vietnamese Community of Georgia organization. (Staff Photos: Curt Yeomans)
MORROW — More than two dozen Vietnamese-Americans from around metro Atlanta came to Morrow last week to see history in the making.
New Morrow City Council members Hang Tran, 27, and Chris Mills, 29, were ceremonially sworn in. Each new council member carries significance in the city by being the first person of Asian descent and the first black man to sit on the council.
Tran carries a little more significance though for the Vietnamese community in Georgia. She is the first Vietnamese-American woman to be elected to a public office in Georgia, said Vietnamese Community of Georgia President Kim Hanh Dang.
“She broke the ice and now a lot of younger people in the Vietnamese community are going to be looking to her as an example,” Dang said. “Everyone is going to be watching her to see what is she going to be like as a council member, and to see what she is going to do now that she’s in office.”
Tran and Mills were sworn in by Clayton County Superior Court Judge Geronda Carter last Friday. An official swearing-in is set to take place during the Jan. 14 city council meeting.
Excitement among the Vietnamese community
Tran’s election represents the emergence of Morrow’s Vietnamese population in city affairs. While Vietnamese-Americans have been present in the city for some time and own businesses in the town, this is the first time a member of that community has become involved in Morrow’s political arena.
That fact, and Tran’s place in history, wasn’t lost on Vietnamese groups. Representatives from the Vietnamese-American Community of Georgia presented bouquets to Tran and Mills during their ceremonial swearing-in.
Vietnamese-Americans make up nearly a quarter of Morrow’s population, said Anh Nguyen, a data dissemination specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau. A little more than 20 percent of city’s residents counted themselves as Vietnamese in the 2010 Census, he said.
“Morrow has the second largest Vietnamese community, percentage-wise, in the United States,” said Nguyen.
While Jenny Nguyen lives in Jonesboro, she was excited to see her friend take the oath of office, even if it was only a ceremonial oath for now.
However, Nguyen said part of that excitement stems from the fact that an ethnic community she is a part of will have a voice in at least one elected office in Clayton County.
“This city has a large Vietnamese population, and Asian population in general, and we finally have a representative to represent the Asian community,” Nguyen said.
One of the people most excited about Hang Tran’s election is Sonny Tran, a Morrow resident and president of Clayton State University’s Vietnamese Student Association.
“This means a lot to the Vietnamese community, to have a representative that’s bilingual and able to be the voice of the Vietnamese community,” Sonny Tran said.
Tran said he sees this as a step towards growing the Vietnamese community’s presence and influence in the area. A key part of driving that growth has been a generation of younger Vietnamese-Americans who moved to the U.S. when they were children and have an easier time speaking in English and Vietnamese.
“Our biggest problem has been the language barrier between English and Vietnamese, but now with the generation of upcoming youth, I believe we’ve broken that barrier,” said Tran. “It can only get better from here really.”
Hang Tran, a chemist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she understands the significance of her election to the city council, and what it means for the Vietnamese community in Georgia. She also accepts that her history-making role in Georgia politics means people will be watching her to see how she does.
“There are a lot of expectations that I will try hard to live up to,” said Tran. “It is an honor, not for me, but for my community to be chosen to serve on the city council.”
A ‘melting pot’
Although Dang said Tran is the first woman of Vietnamese descent to hold elected office in Georgia, she added that there has been a male Vietnamese elected official in state before. Hien Dai Nguyen sat on the Clarkston City Council from 2003 until 2007.
However, some Vietnamese-Americans said although there has already been a precedent for a man of Vietnamese descent to hold office in the state, they were not surprised to see Morrow turn out the first female elected office from the same ethnicity.
Mayor J.B. Burke said Morrow is a mixture of people from different ethnicities and the election of Tran and Mills will allow the council to reflect the city’s diversity.
Although the city’s population has included a mixture of different cultures for some time, the council had been traditionally an old white man’s club until Jeanell Bridges became the African-American member in 2011. Bridges joined the council as an appointed member to fill the last few months of an unexpired term on the council.
She ran unopposed later that year. With Mills and Tran coming on board in about two weeks, the four-member council’s membership will include two African-Americans, one Vietnamese-American and one Caucasian.
Census data shows that in addition to the Vietnamese community, Morrow’s population is 45.5 percent African-American, and 22.1 percent Caucasian, according to the 2010 Census.
“It’s a melting pot today, and I can personally say that when I go around and hear the different dialects, I think it is so refreshing to hear,” said Burke.
That’s a factor that Sonny Tran sees as a tool to build Morrow into a leader that other communities can follow.
“With the diversity we have in Morrow, I think we’ll be a roll model for other cities to follow,” said Tran. “In 25 more years, I believe we’ll be a really big melting pot.”
A pledge to the city
Although there will be a lot of attention placed on Hang Tran because of her ethnicity and place in history, she said her focus is on the city and doing what needs to be done to make it better for all of its residents.
“For me as a mother, and a wife, this is a place I want to live in,” said Tran. “I want to mold this community into a better one and if I can make that difference, then I know for sure that other people can do that as well and can join me in doing that.”
Mills, a retail supervisor for Sodexo USA, pledged to be a servant of the people in his short remarks to attendees at the swearing-in.
“I plan to come in and serve the people and continue the path the council members before me have laid down,” Mills said.