Above: Helen Tran won 62% of the vote in her race against the longtime incumbent. (Photo courtesy Courtney Lindberg Photography)
The people of San Bernardino have spoken. By a wide margin last November, they elected Helen Tran, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and a mother of three, to be the first Asian American mayor of the 222,000-population city in California’s Inland Empire.
When the votes were tallied, Tran had won 62% of the vote in her race against longtime incumbent James “Jim” Penman. Three African American residents—two men and one woman—were elected to the council in 2020, making it the most diverse elected body in the city’s history.
Tran was sworn in to her mayoral position on December 21. Only two previous women have ever served as mayor of San Bernardino in the city’s 169-year history. She’s also the first Vietnamese American woman to be elected mayor of a U.S. city.
Overcoming early obstacles
Tran was born in San Diego but has lived in San Bernardino since she was 6.
“I did not speak English when I started elementary school,” she said. “In San Bernardino we needed translators to help us transition. I had a hard time with reading at first. That’s why I admire educators so much. They can make or break you.”
Tran learned to be a hard worker early on. In second grade, she started helping her mother sew bolts of fabric, turning them into items of clothing to be sold at department stores.
After she graduated from Cajon High School, she headed to UC Santa Cruz. But the switch from home life to college living was painful at first.
“When my mom took me to the dorm and helped me move in, I was in tears,” Tran said. “I cried when she drove off. Actually, I ended up driving home to San Bernardino every weekend.”
Fortunately, she could rely on her best friend, Lakeya Cherry (Rachel Carson ’04, legal studies and psychology), who also traveled from San Bernardino to attend UCSC.
“We often joke that we’re like twins,” said Cherry, who does executive leadership coaching, consulting, training, facilitating, and speaking.
Cherry, like Tran, is a first-generation college graduate.
They’ve known each other since freshman year of high school, when they both volunteered with the Key Club and worked on a political campaign for former U.S. Congressman Joe Baca.
Over the years, Tran gained confidence on campus, joining UCSC’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Delta Phi, an international Asian-interest sorority.
While pursuing her studies, she worked as a grassroots organizer for candidates throughout Southern California. She also took a semester abroad in Siena, Italy.
In her senior year, Tran found an invaluable mentor in Judy Yung, a beloved professor of Asian American history who died in 2020 at age 74.
Yung encouraged Tran to write a detailed oral history about her parents’ decision to flee Vietnam and their perilous journey out of the country.
“What triggered [my father] to leave was witnessing my mother’s older sister being executed by the communists,” Tran said. “Before her execution, she reached out to him. She said, ‘You have to go.’”
After several failed attempts, Tran’s parents ended up leaving on foot through South Vietnam, crossing through Cambodia into Thailand, where they were sponsored to relocate in the U.S.
Learning the inner workings of a city
In 2006, Tran started working as an administrative staff member for San Bernardino’s city government, eventually becoming human resources director.
She served during a tumultuous time, including the period 2012–17 when the city faced bankruptcy. In 2015 a terrorist attack killed 14 people at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, one of the most traumatic events in the city’s history.
“It was crisis after crisis without ever giving you a moment to step back from the crisis and reflect on what steps should be taken,” Tran recalled. “It was an embattled city. I was frustrated. So many people felt the same way. I wanted to take on the chaos and dysfunction.”
Before being elected mayor of San Bernardino, she worked as human resources and risk management director for the city of West Covina.
“People told me I was crazy to leave my executive position for a high-pressure job where you’re in the hot seat all the time, where you’re subject to political attacks,” she said. “But I needed to step up, and my time working for the city let me know what to expect. I knew it wasn’t all going to be gravy.”
All too often, San Bernardino is the subject of put-downs, Tran said. She hopes to help change that.
“I’m a mayor who is also a spokesperson, who is trying to build an image that is no longer negative,” she said.
One of the linchpins of her campaign was her vision of a future San Bernardino that invests heavily in infrastructure, revitalizing its neglected downtown, improving STEM learning, using federal and state funding to rebuild roads, and refurbishing its 41 parks.
“All too often, when people mention my city, they try to put it down,” Tran said. “Well, I’m here to push the positive. I am probably the most positive person you’ve ever met.”