On Khanh Tran, criticism generally has the opposite of its intended effect.
The Alum Rock Union Elementary School District trustee’s stubborn insistence that he’s in the right led to his ouster as board president and inspired a recall campaign. But the 50-year-old elected official said he won’t back down from his refusal to ditch a potentially shady contractor, even if it puts him at odds with virtually the entire district administration, state regulators and concerned parents.
When a state audit pointed to misspending, mismanagement and the risk of fraud from poor internal controls over its contracts with Del Terra Group, a firm hired to oversee $265 million in bond construction, Tran promptly set about discrediting the findings.
When families in the largely low-income East Side district criticized the board for prioritizing new construction over long-overdue maintenance, Tran dismissed the parents and school children as “scripted mobs.”
When veteran Mercury News reporter Sharon Noguchi reported on the crisis wracking the K-8 district in a way he disagreed with, Tran called it “fake news.”
When a parent pointed out that students were trapped in sweltering classrooms during last week’s heat wave because of the board’s decision to allocate bond money for new gyms instead of air conditioning, Tran called her “biased and emotional.”
“I stand by my ideas and political foundation,” Tran wrote in a typo-ridden Sept. 1 email to parent Alison Cingolani. “Unlike others, my ideas are tangible and beneficial in he long run fr (sic) kids, families, and communities. when (sic) those gyms are done, you will see how happy our kids will be and great our schools and communities will be.”
The defiant stance by Tran and his allies—trustees Esau Ruiz Herrera and Dolores Marquez-Frausto, a bloc known as the Alum Rock Three—cost the district its fiscal independence. It also prompted the District Attorney’s Office to launch an investigation.
But Tran has repeatedly stated that he will honor the Del Terra contracts until someone finds proof of fraud. And he bristles at the notion that officials from outside the district—including Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese—have denounced his attempts to undermine and micromanage Superintendent Hilaria Bauer.
“I’m trying to tell them, Sam Liccardo and Dave Cortese and the rest, to stop sticking their nose in our business,” Tran told San Jose Inside. “They don’t know the facts. They don’t know the behind-the-scenes evidence.”
Despite the backlash, Tran maintains that he’s a champion for a “silent majority” of people who voted for him. He only wishes his critics would see it that way instead of “just being emotional.” Tran’s bombast, Twitter barbs, cries of “fake news”and personal denunciations of anyone at odds with him have drawn comparisons to President Trump.
Though he considers himself the ideological opposite of Trump, Tran likens himself to the embattled U.S. president in the sense that they’re both vilified by “biased media.”
“We have a split district, just like we have a split nation,” he said, adding that he understands why Trump prefers Twitter over traditional news outlets. “But I will continue to speak the truth.”
To Tran, that means calling the district corrupt and his critics misguided. It means labeling fellow trustee Andrés Quintero, who initially endorsed Tran’s longshot Congressional bid, “overly emotional” and a supporter of “chaos” and “unlawfulness.” It means characterizing parents who demand change as “a threat to democracy.”
“If a small group were to stick a gun to my head and say you’re going to vote this way, is that democracy?” he rhetorically asked in a lengthy phone call the morning after being voted out as board president. “I’m here to vote my conscience.”
While demanding proof of wrongdoing by Del Terra, Tran has tried to get the district to more closely scrutinize its contracts with HarBro Emergency Services, the company hired to repair Mathson Middle School after a fire damaged the campus in February of 2016. A report last month identified several problems with the HarBro as well, he noted, including cost overruns, an illegal emergency declaration and failure to ratify contracts.
“Some of you ate (sic) obsessed about removing Del Terra and who will you bring in har-bro? (sic)” he wrote in an email to parents last week. “Har bro (sic) cheated the district and there are tons of evidences. It is because Andres [Quintero’s] brother works for har-bro (sic) that you guys not hold hat-bro (sic) accountable? When new bond monies are available, it is tiggle (sic) war between those who eant (sic) to give business to their friends or families. All are the same and they can be bought if you follow the money. I cannot be bought and I ran my campaign less than $1000. I owed no favor and objective in my observation.”
Quintero called Tran’s assertions that his family has ties to HarBro slanderous.
Tran, however, has repeated his claim in emails and conversations with constituents, district staff and media. If he terminated contracts with Del Terra, Tran continued, that would drag the district into needless litigation. In his view, the problem lies with Bauer’s oversight of the HarBro contracts, which is why Tran tried to hire a deputy superintendent to bypass her and report directly to the board.
“We need those checks and balances,” he said. “I’m here to hold everyone accountable. Nobody is above the law.”
But in a follow-up phone call on Tuesday, Tran took a decidedly more conciliatory tone. He told San Jose Inside that the pleas from Cortese and Liccardo to support Bauer convinced him to soften his stance.
“Even though I’m very critical of her, and I’m biting my teeth as I do this, I’m more compassionate now … and I do support renewing her contract through 2020,” he said. “I believe in second chances.”
If the district mismanaged its dealings with HarBro, Tran said, Bauer alone shouldn’t shoulder the blame. He told her as much in an email on Monday.
“As of this point on, I get scolded and blamed for trying to help you by the twisted media,” he wrote to the superintendent. “But I believe you have changed for the good. It is because your supporters changed you and show you the good. I would take their advice and change for the good and be a fair and honorable person.”
With his term up in 2018, Tran said he’s preparing to ramp up his run for Congress against Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont). His congressional bid stemmed from concern for the working poor, senior citizens and millennials, said Tran, a cyber-security consultant by trade. He acknowledged that he sees his time on the school board as “training,” or “a starting point” in his quest for higher office. As a congressman, he said, he would try to secure federal funding for affordable housing and public land trusts.
Tran has been promoting his campaign on Twitter under the handle @KT4Millennials. His campaign website features several old photos of his four children over the slogan, “It’s about Integrity, Labor and Housing.”
“In the end, like Trump, I get votes,” Tran said. “Unlike Trump, I defend seniors, the weak, poor and helpless.”
Though he admittedly has little in the way of campaign cash, Tran said he’s proud to have landed an endorsement from former county Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. That’s the same Shirakawa who was jailed a few years back on public corruption charges and who was caught rigging an election by sending out campaign mailers to paint a friend’s opponent in a San Jose council race as communist.
But Tran, who has little patience for concerned parents in his district, expressed deep sympathy for his friend Shirawaka.
“We all make mistakes,” Tran said. “I’m sending a message that people deserve a second chance. Not only that, but he did a lot for his constituency. The voters loved him, so if he supports me, which he does, I get his voters.”
During his time as trustee, Tran said, he has often confided to Shirakawa, who offers guidance in return.
“Also, you know, I told George, ‘Hey, why the hell did you lick the stamp? I mean, you’re supposed to use water or something, or a sponge.’ Just kidding, you know. But I do believe in second chances.”
If Shirakawa avoided jail, Tran said, he’d be in Congress right now. And if Tran beats Khanna in the 2018 election, he added, he’d hire Shirakawa in a heartbeat. Tran said the disgraced politician’s gifts far outweigh his criminal offenses.
“I have no problem hiring him as chief of staff,” Tran said. “On one condition, though: don’t lick the stamps.”
Tran laughed, adding that, on a serious note, he would keep Shirakawa in check.
“We’d have one rule,” he added, “to keep the stamps away from George.”
This article has been updated.