Dai Thao, a community organizer and information technology manager who promised to be a “transformative leader,” will be St. Paul’s newest City Council member.
Thao, 38, was named the unofficial winner Monday after Ramsey County elections officials worked seven hours to count ballots in the First Ward ranked-choice election. He won 41 percent of the total votes, beating City Council aide Noel Nix by 248 votes and five other candidates.
If the City Council signs off on the vote count Wednesday and there are no challenges, Thao will be sworn in Nov. 21 as St. Paul’s first Hmong-American council member. Blong Yang, an attorney, became Minneapolis’ first Hmong City Council member last week.
Mayor Chris Coleman extended congratulations to Thao in a Facebook posting Wednesday. “I am excited to get to business and to make St. Paul, and Ward 1, such a great place,” wrote Coleman, who handily won re-election to a third term last week.
Thao will succeed Council Member Nathaniel Khaliq, who was appointed by the City Council in July to replace Melvin Carter III after Carter resigned to take a state education job. Thao will serve the remaining two years of Carter’s term.
Thao led the seven-candidate field from election night, when he was the first choice of 28 percent of the voters, followed by 24 percent for Nix. But the ranked-choice election mandated the hand count Monday, since none of the candidates had received more than 50 percent of the vote.
The ward, perhaps St. Paul’s most diverse and economically troubled, had 21,218 registered voters as of 2011, but only 4,770 ballots were cast last week — a turnout of 22 percent.
Ramsey County Elections Director Joe Mansky said the reallocation of votes was “actually a continuation of the election of Tuesday.” County staffers first counted the ballots, precinct by precinct, to confirm the election night tally, and then reallocated ballots to candidates starting with those cast for write-ins and last-place finisher Paul Holmgren.
The only glitch Monday came when staffers counted fewer votes than machines had registered on election night. They eventually found 53 ballots overlooked at the bottom of a ballot box, which reconciled the tallies.
Shortly before 4 p.m., Mansky declared Thao the unofficial winner with 1,970 votes, more than Nix’s 1,722.
He won because he had more votes than Nix and there were no other candidates, even though he failed to top 50 percent.
Married and the father of three, Thao works for the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery as an information technology manager and as an organizer for ISAIAH and TakeAction Minnesota. During the campaign, he said that he would work for more living-wage jobs, better city services and more affordable housing.
“I am not a career politician,” he told the Hmong Times. “It is my conviction that we are all created equal with dignity to reach our highest human potential. But too often, there are structures that make it so only the few and privileged could have a good life. I am ready to stand up for the people in Ward 1.”
Although this was Thao’s first race, he has worked for years in politics and as a liaison between minority communities and political leaders.
In 2004, Thao helped organize a march from St. Paul to Washington by Hmong refugees titled the Long Walk for Freedom for better treatment of the Hmong by Lao leaders. He was co-chair of state Rep. Rena Moran’s legislative campaign, active in the fights against the Voter ID and Marriage amendment, and belonged to the coalition that secured three additional light-rail stops in the Summit-University district. He worked with ISAIAH and TakeAction Minnesota to analyze the community impact of light rail.
Thao was born in Laos and moved as a child with his family to Minnesota, where he grew up in a federal housing project in north Minneapolis.
He credited the Boy Scouts with helping keep him from getting too entangled with gangs and became an Eagle scout.
Hoping to cut his ties with street life in the Twin Cities, he went to live with relatives in Montana and wound up studying computer science and military science at Montana State University.
After college, he returned to the Twin Cities and took computer tech positions with Education Minnesota and then the Hmong American Partnership.
Thao raised more money than any other candidate in the race, taking in contributions of nearly $33,000 according to the latest finance report, and also scored more endorsements than everyone but Nix — including backing from St. Paul firefighters, TakeAction Minnesota and the Stonewall DFL.