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Dai Thao delivered his inaugural message Thursday with confidence after being sworn in as St. Paul's newest City Council member. But he paused a few seconds to collect his emotions before declaring that the city's "diversity is our strength."
"I believe that being the first Hmong-American council member of our great city of St. Paul is no different from the first Irish, German, Swede, African-American, Polish, so on," he said. "You not only carry the extraordinary expectations but also the hopes and dreams of your own community.
"With that said, I want to make it clear that I'm here for all communities, that your family is like my family."
Thao's election to the City Council's First Ward seat this month was the latest chapter in the Hmong community's remarkable political rise in the Twin Cities only two generations after thousands fled Communist persecution in Southeast Asia in the 1970s.
In a few weeks, another chapter will be written when Blong Yang takes office as the first Hmong-American on the Minneapolis City Council.
David Schultz, a Hamline University professor and political analyst, said that the Hmong community might be approaching "a tipping point" where it has sufficient population, experience and influence to elect growing numbers.
The Hmong "have learned how to play politics in the sense where they're now in position to form coalitions with other groups, as opposed to being isolated," Schultz said.
Kazoua Kong-Thao, a former St. Paul school board member and one of six candidates who lost in the First Ward race, said that she was "excited" by Thao and Yang's victories and that they would open doors to other Hmong candidates.
"Voting is one thing, but when you're in office you really have an opportunity to help educate and build competency," she said.
In his speech Thursday, Thao told the City Council that he was "proud to partner with you to protect the weak from the strong, the vulnerable from the privileged, and to ensure we thrive together." His goal, he said, "was for no one else to have their human dignity stripped away by poverty, injustice and discrimination."
Noel Nix, who narrowly lost to Thao, was beaming after the ceremony. "This is absolutely the right moment and an important moment for the city of St. Paul," he said.
Breaking into City Hall
Hmong-American candidates have been winning races in the Twin Cities since 1991, when a 22-year-old tutor named Choua Lee was elected to the St. Paul school board and became the first Hmong person elected to public office in the United States.
Since then, there have been other St. Paul school board members (Neal Thao, Kong-Thao) and legislators (Mee Moua, Cy Thao, current Sen. Foung Hawj). But until now, no Hmong had been elected to the City Council in either St. Paul or Minneapolis.
Kong-Thao said that it may have taken longer for the Hmong to get to City Hall because those races are highly politicized and because City Council positions — with their power to control the purse strings and direct local services — are more coveted.
The First Ward race in St. Paul was a special election to fill out the last two years of the term of Melvin Carter III, who stepped down in July to take a state education job. Thao, 38, an information technology manager and veteran community organizer, was among the leaders throughout the entire campaign.
Thao was born in Laos and grew up in a federal housing project in north Minneapolis. He wrote in a 1998 essay for the Star Tribune about missing his father, who left the family to go back to Laos, and how the Boy Scouts helped him deal with confusion over his Hmong and American identities.
He found work as a computer technician, first with the state teachers union and then with the Hmong American Partnership in St. Paul. And he became known for his organizing skills, helping on campaigns to promote the Hmong, fight health care cuts and defeat last year's voter ID and marriage amendments.
Thao promised more living-wage jobs, public safety funding, affordable housing and education. "I told my team to be honest and put ourselves out there, and if the community wasn't ready for what we wanted, it's OK," he said.
The hard work begins
An attorney and former investigator for Minneapolis' civil rights department, Yang, 37, ran for the Hennepin County Board last year but lost to Linda Higgins. He decided to try this year for the North Side council seat vacated by Don Samuels, who ran for mayor.
Thao and Yang competed for but failed to win DFL Party backing (the party wound up not endorsing in either race). Both ran in wards with large African-American populations, against black candidates with strong backing.
Within the Hmong community, Yang's victory was considered the bigger surprise. The Hmong in St. Paul are thought to be more politically potent and sophisticated than in Minneapolis, where the community is smaller and has had less of an impact.
"There's been a feeling that if you're going to get ahead in politics, you should move to St. Paul," Kong-Thao said.
Both candidates reached well beyond the Hmong community for support. But Yang, with a smaller Hmong bloc to draw upon, made a point of targeting Somalis, East Africans, Hispanics, Lao, Vietnamese.
"Candidates typically go after traditional voters, but we sent three mailers to every home in the ward, we door-knocked every single inch, did three lit drops and attacked the whole ward," Yang said.
For both men, the hard work of governing now begins. Mayor Chris Coleman, in welcoming Thao to the City Council, had a little tip for him.
"We work best when we just agree with whatever I want, and as long as we do that we'll have no problems," he said.