He was a member of his high school debate team before becoming a computing science major at the University of Alberta. Then the New Democratic Party came calling, and Thomas Dang found himself in the thick of a provincial election. Not only did he run against a Progressive Conservative incumbent in the Edmonton Southwest, Mr. Dang won his seat while writing exams. Not bad for a young man who turned 20 the day the election was called.
How did this happen – from university student to the youngest MLA in Alberta history, all in the span of 28 days?
Politics was always on my radar. I thought I'd go into politics down the road, maybe 10 years from now. When I was in high school, I wasn't for any one party. I spoke at a high school protest because of budget cuts and how that was affecting classroom size. That got me interested. I wasn't partisan yet, but I leaned towards the left… I saw the problems in education, and in the health-care program. The NDP made the most sense to me and what was best for Alberta, so I think it was a bit of both – I liked what they were doing and they approached me. The first week of campaigning I was still in school and writing exams. I just managed my time as best I could. I knocked on as many doors as I could [while campaigning], then I would study in between for exams.
What was the reaction when you told voters in Edmonton Southwest you were running for the legislature?
It was definitely a roller coaster of emotions. We did a lot of door knocking and I did some on my own. It was a great experience meeting people and listening to them. Yeah, I got a few who said, "You're a bit young." And I said, "Yes, but we should be excited about getting young people into politics with a fresh approach." I think it's good that young people are engaged in politics. I am a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity. The entire fraternity is extremely excited and proud. I am joining a pool of DUs who have taken part in politics. For example, I have had lunch with Allan Warrack, a minister under former premier Peter Lougheed, who expressed his excitement, pride and belief this would be a positive change for the province. [Mr. Warrack and Mr. Lougheed were DU members who became PC stalwarts. Mr. Warrack advised Mr. Dang to listen to other points of view and have an open mind.]
What do your mom and dad say about their politically engaged son?
My parents were refugees from Vietnam. We're Chinese. They've been very supportive and very happy. So is my older sister. My dad is a computer science software architect; my mom works at a bank. They were saying it was a lot harder situation than they thought when they first got here [to Edmonton]. They had to go right into work or go to school; they had to pay the bills. It was difficult for them. That's why my dad has always told me to have a Plan B. Computing science is more a study of math and analyzing the efficiency of different programs and algorithms [while] improving existing methods or developing new ones. It was definitely my Plan B, or A, not sure.
What's the best piece of advice you've received so far?
"I talked to one of the MPs in Quebec, Laurin Liu [a 24-year-old Calgary-born NDP member]. She understood my situation and said, "Be sure to take time for yourself. Don't burn out." The guys in the computing science program told me, "We're technical people. Why politics?" That was funny.
Are you keen to settle into the legislature and get to work?
I'm going to take a break from school and not go back this fall. When I made the decision [to join the NDP], I was ready to get started because we can change this province. We have some very good staff members and we know they're experienced and will be there to help answer our questions. I think this is very exciting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.