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Getting to “yes” in politics
USC Gould School of Law

Monday, June 28, 2021

New perspective lands Thai Viet Phan (JD/MPP 2015) on Santa Ana City Council

By Matthew Kredell

Thai Viet Phan (JD/MPP 2015)

When Thai Viet Phan (JD/MPP 2015) applied for a grant as a second-year law student at USC Gould, one of the interviewers asked if she was interested in running for office.  At the time, “I thought politics were a little bit gross,” Phan says, laughing.

Last November, Phan was elected as the first Vietnamese American and first Asian woman on the Santa Ana City Council.

“I’m proud and honored to be the first Vietnamese American on the dais,” Phan says. “I think it’s a great responsibility to make sure that, whatever I do, I keep the community in mind and provide services many of them have not been getting.”

Understanding community needs

Phan grew up in Santa Ana, a part of the Little Saigon community in Orange County, the largest community of Vietnamese people located outside Vietnam. She was born in Thailand near a refugee camp to which her family fled from Vietnam. 

As a child, she routinely served as translator and helped her mother submit paperwork for social services and government aid. 

“That was a lot to do as a 10-year-old, but at the same time it’s also what I think helped me understand the needs of our community,” Phan says. “I’m very lucky to have gotten a good education and be where I am now to serve.”

Phan studied law and public policy at USC. She found her job in government and regulatory law at Rutan & Tucker LLP by looking through a Gould Career Services list of firms employing graduates. The alum she contacted there to talk about the company wound up interviewing her on campus.

“USC was definitely instrumental in helping me find a really great job at a great firm,” Phan says. “A lot of that was the Trojan Network, being able to reach out and receive resources whenever I needed it.”

She, too, serves as a resource for current USC Gould students through the C. David Molina First Generation Professionals Program, which she helped develop during her last semester at Gould.

“I can do a better job”

At Rutan, Phan works as an assistant city attorney for the cities of Duarte and Menifee and provides legal counsel to cities and other public agencies throughout Southern California. She also gained governance experience as a member of the Santa Ana Planning Commission.

Meeting with elected officials made her reconsider her pledge never to run for office. When redistricting opened the possibility of running in a predominantly Asian ward, she decided to take the leap.

“As city attorney, I saw how government is run in different places and what they’re doing to improve the community,” Phan says. “I looked at my city and said, ‘You know, I can do a better job.’”

She and fellow council members are now deciding the best use of more than $140 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan to help local residents and businesses. Phan is interested in using the money to improve housing attainability and development.

“I hope we as a council are creative in how we invest those dollars so that they have a great return on investment not just dollar-wise but for our residents,” Phan says. “Rather than one-time uses, I’d like to see the money spent in ways that will still be making an impact 20 to 30 years from now.”

Her top priority in office is removing the language barrier inhibiting many residents who speak only Vietnamese, like her mother, from accessing city services. Her ideas to address this issue include hiring more employees who speak Vietnamese, having translators on call, and translating city instruction forms and processes into Vietnamese.

“We have more than 25,000 residents not being properly serviced in Santa Ana, because we don’t currently have the resources and infrastructure to communicate with them,” Phan says. “We have a lot of folks who don’t speak English in our community, so language access is crucial for equity here. I’m never going to stop banging the drum until we get these services.”

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