Rich Tran’s first mayoral term didn’t exactly start off on the right foot.
On the evening of December 13, 2016, in front of a packed Council Chamber, Tran stood up to take the oath of office. He was just 31 years old.
Many were initially astounded by his win. He was the only person who had ever been elected to a Mayoral seat in Milpitas without having first served as a City Councilmember. He had come in ahead of his opponents, names like Carmen Montano and Debbie Giordano, both well-known in the community for their public service.
But now, here was Tran. He was young, he was inexperienced, and he had a lot to prove.
However, on the night when he was first sworn in, he would present a plagiarized speech, one that lifted passages from Obama’s acceptance speech in 2008.
It was reported on by the Milpitas Post/Mercury News the following week.
“It was really bad for me,” said Tran in an interview with The Beat. “It was the worst start possible.”
Scott Herhold, who was a political columunist for the Mercury News, even wrote a piece indicating that Tran’s political career was likely over.
With all of the bad press he received, Tran was propelled to change the conversation.
“I told myself, I gotta turn this around,” said Tran. “I gotta be productive and do something to show everybody outside this window I wasn’t a complete failure.”
But it didn’t stop with the misstep of the plagiarized speech.
“My lowest point as mayor was my first 6 months here in City Hall,” Tran admitted.
At rock bottom, he decided he would work hard to focus on doing good things for the City. Every time he did something positive, he tallied it. After 12 weeks, he said he was finally able to stop counting.
Now, six years later, he is getting ready to leave office, after being termed out as mayor. Despite that rocky start in 2016, Rich Tran went on to serve three consecutive terms.
It was late this week, as Tran was in the midst of packing up his corner office that overlooks the city, when The Beat sat down with him to discuss his experiences as Mayor.
He spoke of how when he first ran for office, he knew there were problems at City Hall, but he hadn’t realized the depth of City issues. There were nearly $2 million in personnel lawsuits, including a wrongful termination suit from the City’s former Attorney Mike Ogaz.
At the time, Tom Williams was City Manager. Various news outlets reported on complaints of a hostile work environment. When Tran ran for mayor in 2016, he was sure to let the voters know that he would be focusing on uprooting the toxic culture at City Hall.
“I didn’t want to get into office to take down the whole house,” Tran told The Beat. “But I needed a competitive edge against my opponents because no one was saying anything about this.”
When he got into office, Tran says he got to work on delivering on his promise.
“Within 6 months of my first term, the City Manager was placed on Administrative leave,” said Tran. “That was a huge win in the eyes of the residents. There are so many longtime residents here. All these people knew. People were really impressed that I addressed the biggest problem in City Hall.”
The City of Milpitas has had several different individuals in the City Manager position during Tran’s time as Mayor. But in 2020, Steve McHarris took the reins, and has held the position ever since.
“I’m a believer in stability. I grew up with a single mom and moved around a lot,” Tran shared. “Every year or two, we moved around. I hate instability. With our City Manager right now, we have stability.”
Tran spoke in depth about how proud he feels to have helped bring stability and organizational morale to the City. In fact, he feels this is one of his top ten achievements as Mayor.
He’s also proud that there have been two tax increases under his watch – a transient occupancy tax — a rent charged to hotel guests — was raised from 10 to 14%; and the sales tax was raised from 9% to 9.25%.
“I want our city to be prosperous,” said Tran. “I want our city to be rich.”
During his three terms, Tran told The Beat, he consistently remained focused on three things: quality of life for residents, fiscal health, and organizational morale.
When asked how he has evolved during his three terms, Tran replied: “I was raw. I was inexperienced. I didn’t have the environmental awareness. It really shaped me from my first day to now, here, as a rapid growth in my life experience. I’ve learned so much.”
During Tran’s rocky first term, he was rebuked by all his fellow Councilmembers. All four of them signed a letter stating that Tran’s behavior and statements “have failed to meet the level of professionalism and the level of respect that our community expects and deserves from our leaders.”
That letter was signed by Councilmembers Marsha Grilli, Garry Barbadillo, Bob Nuñez, and Anthony Phan.
Leading up to that time, Tom Williams was suing the City for $1 million, accusing Tran of making inappropriate, ageist comments. That lawsuit was resolved in 2019.
“The Council wasn’t supportive of me whatsoever,” said Tran. “I felt they were opposed to me.” He added: “When I got this letter, I said, ‘Right now, I’m the worst Mayor in the city’s history.’ How embarrassing, right?”
Tran fell into a depression. He felt it was his darkest hour, and that he had no answers whatsoever. He even contemplated going on a hunger strike.
“Everything was stacked against me. I didn’t know why it was so bad. Why there was so much darkness and allegations,” Tran related.
In the midst of this tough period, he picked up the phone and called former Milpitas Mayor Bob Livengood for support. Livengood gave Tran a boost of confidence. He came out of their encounter knowing that even though he was at a low point, he had to focus on winning.
So he kept his head down, determined to work hard to put good ideas in front of the Council. Ideas that would improve and enhance the entire city.
He proposed an ordinance for stricter massage parlor regulations, which passed in 2019. He also created a Comprehensive Homeless Strategy.
“I pushed forward so many good ideas, they couldn’t say no,” said Tran. “Winning those things helped me get out of that rebuke.”
Around 2018, Tran started noticing that he was starting to attract more negative comments on his Facebook page, but he says none of them have ever bothered him.
“The longer you’re in office, the more criticism you’re gonna have,” Tran explained.
Varied parties have been highly critical of Tran over the past several years, whether it was over his handling of Milpitas’ unhoused population, his unwillingness to take a stand regarding Roe v. Wade being overturned, or his many conflicts with Councilmember Karina Dominguez, whom he stripped of her Vice Mayor title back in early 2020.
Despite all the criticism that has flooded his way, Tran describes himself as someone who has “thick skin.”
He feels he got that trait from his mother, who has had to demonstrate her own “thick skin” time and time again.
“My mom always told me: ‘You’re going to have haters. Just ignore them and keep about your business,’” the Mayor said.
As a single mom, the elder Tran knew no shortage of struggles. She fled Vietnam on a boat with her sister and brother. Her sister ended up passing away along the journey.
“My mother is heavily traumatized. She’s been through divorce with my father. And she was a victim of domestic violence,” Tran disclosed.
He recalled times when the Milpitas Police would show up at his grandma’s house due to his father’s acts of abuse. There were also intense custody battles. When his mom had to hand off Tran and his sister to his father, he recalls them having to do it at the flagpole in front of the Milpitas Police Department.
“That’s why she drives me to get double bachelors degrees and double master’s degrees. To go through the military and get an achievement medal. To be a three-time elected mayor,” Tran explained.
And Tran’s mom has also been there for him through every achievement – graduations, getting out of bootcamp for the military, his three Milpitas election wins.
“I do this for her trauma. To make her feel like her life is full…which it is,” Tran told The Beat.
After six years, things are coming full circle. Tran feels confident about the work he’s done at City Hall, and is heartened to know that he has been able to build what he calls a “coalition” with people like Councilmember Evelyn Chua, incoming Councilmember Garry Barbadillo, and Vice Mayor Carmen Montano, who will soon be stepping into the Mayoral role.
After he officially terms out as mayor on December 20, Tran plans to do some volunteer work and to spend more time with senior citizens in the community. He would also like to join a City commission, and even take some initial steps toward starting a family. Tran also mentioned that he has a salaried job as an advisor for a company (which he didn’t wish to name).
His passion is tireless. His drive is relentless. And his commitment to his city is unstoppable: “I’ll always be here in Milpitas,” said Rich Tran.
*Note: As Mayor Rich Tran departs from office, The Beat’s owners have a little something we’d like to share with the Mayor and our readers:
Although The Beat was founded in 2018, we – Rhoda and Eric Shapiro – were in fact present at Mayor Tran’s acceptance speech at the start of his first term. At the time, we had no intention of starting a newspaper. The idea was not even anywhere near our minds.
That night, on December 13, we sat in the overflow room at City Hall to hear Tran’s first speech as Mayor, as the Council chamber was too full to hold any additional people.
This was the first time we had ever seen or heard Rich Tran speak. We had just started following local politics, and didn’t know a single person sitting there in the room with us.
As we listened to Tran’s speech, something felt vaguely familiar. Eric called it first: “He’s plagiarizing Obama’s speech.”
As Tran spoke, Rhoda pulled up the text to President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on her phone and saw that, sure enough, Tran was stating many lines from it, word for word. We looked around the room at all the faces to see if anybody else had noticed. It seemed that no one had.
But for a couple days after that, we waited to see if the news media would report on it. No one did. No one else had caught that Tran had plagiarized the speech.
So we sent an email to The Milpitas Post. They weren’t sure if we were right at first. They asked for specific instances of plagiarism. So we emailed them a follow-up, and they scooped the story within days.
Here are a few of the messages sent back and forth with The Post:
Again, at the time, we had no idea that we would be starting The Milpitas Beat almost two years later. The road there was circuitous and strange, and had nothing to do — on the surface — with what had happened that December evening in City Hall. And over the ensuing years, as we’ve grown and progressed, Rich Tran has likewise served three terms. His start was our start; his appearance on the scene was aligned with that of this newspaper.
We at The Milpitas Beat would like to thank Mayor Rich Tran for his service and his leadership and accessibility during all these years. Rich, we couldn’t tell you (or anyone else) it was us who tipped off The Post. Through the ups, through the downs, whether we were reporting on your triumphs or your challenges, it never seemed appropriate or in context. We knew, however, that someday we would.
That day has come.
Best wishes, Mayor Tran. And keep in touch. As your journey progresses in a new direction, here at our offices, we’ll keep on watching Milpitas closely.
The Beat goes on.