We sat down with State Representative Tram Nguyen to learn about her political journey, outlook on policies and plans for the future.
This continues the Carnation’s series of Q&As with Tewksbury elected officials. It has been edited for length and clarity. We previously spoke with Sen. Barry Finegold and Planning Board Chair Stephen Johnson.
Ali Lightfield: You came to the US as a child and ended up going from Tufts University to Northeastern then practicing law. What inspired that journey?
Representative Tram Nguyen: Thank you for this opportunity to basically give you a little bit of information about me. I never intended to be in elected office throughout my entire career. Even when I was in law, and before law school, my intent was to find a profession that will allow me to help people. When I was in college, I like to tell the story of how I started out as a pre-med student and quickly learned that I was not made to deal with blood. So I quickly realized that I had to change majors, and it was during college when I realized the potential in pursuing a law degree.
I was lucky enough to get an internship at Greater Boston Legal Services working in the Asian Outreach Unit to help attorneys and paralegals with their legal cases, helping vulnerable people, including new immigrants, low wage workers, survivors of domestic violence and others. And in doing that work, I saw the potential of the law to really be used to help people. That was what prompted me to go to law school, and after law school, I returned to Greater Boston Legal Services to be an Equal Justice Works fellow, specifically helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and again, I had the opportunity to see how good policies could help people and how bad policies could really hurt them.
After that fellowship, after I became a staff attorney, I started working on policies, some of which you might have heard — the fight for $15 minimum wage, and other protections for workers and for survivors. I saw that there was an opportunity for me to run for office, and that was how I came to run for the seat. I was very lucky that I was able to win my first election — overwhelmingly. It’s been a true honor to serve as a representative of the 18th Essex district.
Note: Nguyen unseated former GOP party chair and local business owner Jim Lyons. Lyons, an Andover resident, owns the Dandi-Lyons ice cream shop in Tewksbury.
AL: You already mentioned that you had a law fellowship with Equal Justice Works, and then you also have a past with the civil legal assistance for Victims of Crime project. What drew you to care for the vulnerable communities? And did you find that that experience kind of benefited your future career?
TN: Just to clarify, the Equal Justice Works fellowship was the funding that allowed me to work at Greater Boston Legal Services. So they happened at the same time, and I was very lucky to be one of very few people across the country to be able to get that fellowship, to get the funding. That was in 2013, right during the recession, so not many nonprofits were hiring. So we had to basically apply to get the funding to work in legal services. But great question.
I want to back up a little bit more. I think that this all started even before my time in undergraduate classes at Tufts. I came here with my family as an immigrant when I was five years old as political refugees from Vietnam, and seeing my parents, seeing how hard they worked in multiple jobs, making barely minimum wage with very little benefits and protection — I saw how much they struggled. But I also saw the struggle of other immigrant families in my work.
That really prompted me to think through how we can help the most vulnerable in our communities. How do we give opportunities — truly equal opportunities — to people like my family and give them that chance to move forward? How do we work on social justice, racial justice, economic justice, to make sure that everyone has that opportunity to succeed and thrive in our Commonwealth? And that was what prompted me to work in legal services, so that I could not only represent people in the courtroom, but work on policies that could truly lift them up in the process.
My passion really comes from my personal experience, from my work, from my background. And all of that has really helped shape the policy that I’m working on now. It also helps me in terms of the advocacy of the bills that I’m working on, because I can speak from very personal experience and tell stories of how policies could impact real people.
AL: There is a push for more transparency in the Massachusetts government, such as letting constituents know how their reps voted. And committees. So do you support measures to increase that transparency and why or why not?
TN: I think transparency is very important, which is exactly why we have a newsletter that goes out every month to let people know what’s going on in the legislature. I have prided myself and my team on being very accessible when people reach out about policies. We’re very open to discussing them and how I vote on matters. I think it’s very important for people to understand that as a representative, I am elected to listen to people and to hear feedback from all sides.
As many people know, my district is considered a purple district, in that we have people from across the political spectrum. So for any given policy, there’s really no one voice. I don’t think I’ve seen a policy yet where everyone agrees on a particular position. So my job is to listen very carefully and make a sound judgment as to how I would vote on particular matters. I’ve never shied away from explaining to people how I voted, because I can promise to be very open about my votes. But I can’t promise that I’ll agree with anyone 100% of the time, so I will always explain to folks exactly what my thought process is and how I got to certain conclusions. I think that is what we need to strive to do, to have that open dialogue with the community, and to make sure that they know that their representative is accessible to them, and that we give them the opportunity to give input however they want to.
But the reality of it is that six or seven thousand bills were filed this session, so at any given time, people could be reaching out to us about bills that we may not know much about. What I can promise is that I will look into those bills, but I can’t promise that I’m an expert in every single one of those issues. So that requires people reaching out, flagging these bills, then our office will look into them, and then we will give them updates and work with them.
AL: There was also some consternation when Tewksbury was split up to have three representatives. Can you give some examples of how you and Representatives Vanna Howard and Dave Robertson have worked as a team for Tewksbury?
TN: I’m very excited to have Representative Howard joining the Tewksbury delegation along with Representative Robertson and Senator [Barry] Finegold. As you might know, we worked very diligently within the last two sessions to bring back a lot of funding to Tewksbury, whether that is in the annual budget, or the economic development bills, or the ARPA funding and just other earmarks that we have been able to partner with the town of Tewksbury on in order to make sure that we are supporting their projects.
Now we have an additional voice to ask for funding for whatever it is that the town is working on. This is a type of partnership that I hope will continue into this session and beyond. We want that open communication so that we know what the town wants and how we can plug in to help make that happen.
AL: You’ve now been a state representative of the 18th Essex district for about four years. So, what is your proudest accomplishment? And is there anything that you’ve learned?
TN: Great question. I’ve definitely learned a lot. This is not a job that is the same day to day, and I think that the most exciting thing about this job is that I’m constantly learning. Like I said, we have many bills that we need to look through. I’m constantly learning about new issues that may be of interest to, not only our constituents, but residents of the Commonwealth overall.
Our biggest accomplishment is the services that we were able to provide to our constituents, particularly during the COVID pandemic when hundreds of people reached out to us to get help with unemployment insurance or other things. We pride ourselves on being that conduit to connect people to the resources that they need, and to give them accurate information during a time when there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty. We felt like we were a true partner in that process.
AL: And a bill that you filed that really struck me was one that would promote diversity on public boards or commissions. So can you articulate the importance of diversity in these fields and how that can be achieved?
TN: First of all, I do want to note that public boards and commissions have an outsize impact on the direction of our policies and education, health, public safety and more. So, it is important for us to have the representation needed on these boards so that they influence the type of policies that we want to move forward as a commonwealth. We’ve seen this throughout previous years that women and people of color are vastly underrepresented. In Massachusetts, people of color account for 28% of the population but only 10% of chairs on public boards, and women of color comprise just about 6% of board chairs. We need more diverse representation and leadership, and to offer that opportunity to give a variety of perspectives on the decisions that impact our community.
I’m truly excited to be working with representative Dawne Shand on this bill, along with the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, as well as many other organizations as part of that coalition to move forward and to make sure that our boards reflect the composition of our Commonwealth.
AL: So for those who are kind of looking to build that composition, what would you say to anyone who may be trying to get their start in politics?
TN: I say that if you are considering running, particularly if you are a woman, please do. There is a statistic out there that shows that women need to be asked at least seven times before they would even consider running for office. I think that is both an internal and external thing, in the sense that most women would want to really have their ducks in a row before they would even consider running for office.
And frankly, many women underestimate our own competencies, whereas studies show that men tend to think that they’re more qualified. So I would encourage women to think through all that you have been able to do to get to where you are. You’ve worked so hard, whether you’ve worked or been at home, you have so many skill sets, and so many perspectives to provide. We want to have representation at all levels of government, because representation is not just a buzzword, representation truly matters because people need to see it to be it, and different perspectives allow for more innovative solutions, which is exactly what we need in policy.
I would encourage people who are interested. I think that it’s diversity, not just in gender and race, it’s also diversity of age and experience of people with different backgrounds of different professions. The more that we can get people engaged in the legislative or the political process, the better. People should feel like the government is working for them and that they have a voice in how the government works. And so I am a big believer in civic education. I am a big believer in civic engagement. I want to make sure that people understand the power of their vote, and why getting involved with the government is so important.
AL: With all that being said, this is part of a “Year in Preview” series that we’re doing so what are your top three legislative priorities and this new term?
TN: I’m really thrilled that you are asking me about this. My background has been in employment law, helping low-wage workers and others get access to the resources and benefits that they deserve. A large number of my bills are designed to provide more opportunities to work here in Massachusetts. We want to help workers who get injured on the job, increase benefits for low-wage workers, and increase the minimum wage for all workers.
Additionally, as a member of the Mental Health and Substance Use and Recovery Committee, I know that sober homes are unregulated here in Massachusetts, so one of my bills will direct the Department of Public Health to establish regulations so that all patients recovering from substance use disorder will be protected — and that falls under the umbrella of the health of our community.
So many of my bills are related to the fact that I want to provide protection for survivors of domestic violence, for instance, or survivors of crimes. We want them to know what resources are available to them, to protect them from abuse and give them a way to rebuild their lives.
And of course, we care very deeply about the environment. I think that it is very important for people to understand how safe their water is. Many of us rely on the Merrimack River for a water source, but this [bill] is for rivers throughout the Commonwealth.
Note: Rep. Nguyen’s bill requires that wastewater treatment plants test for bacteria immediately following a sewage overflow, to better assess where the water is most affected, and develop a predictive model for how long the river is affected after a sewage overflow.
AL: Well, thank you so much for talking with me. Is there anything else that you’d like to say for our readers?
TN: I want to make sure that people understand that I am here to listen, and I hope that they know how to reach me. If you have any questions on any of the bills or anything I’m working on, please reach out to us. You can find our information on the Mass Legislature’s website, or you can also go to my website, votetram.com, to get more information on how you reach out to us and what we’re working on.