The door of a corner house on Bryant Avenue N. in north Minneapolis is draped with a string of small wooden objects. Two Hmong shamans live inside, and they believe the small symbolic carvings protect the house from bad or negative spirits.
Only positive spirits have been at the Lee doorstep this fall for the shamans’ son, Fue Lee, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to the United States with his family as a toddler. On Tuesday, Lee won a seat at the Minnesota Legislature, representing his North Side district. Lee is just 25 years old.
Lee surprised many veteran political pundits by beating 10-term representative Joe Mullery in the DFL primary. Because the district votes heavily for Democrats, Lee was expected to win handily.
But that didn’t stop him from continuing to campaign this week. On Monday, he worked out of his campaign office, an overflowing backroom of his family’s house, where Lee and four siblings live with their mother and father. The campaign office also holds two altars, where his mother and father, both shamans, perform ceremonies for community members who come to them for help and spiritual guidance.
One sister, Lee’s communications director, was at the kitchen table. Another sister is his treasurer. Lee was able to door-knock the neighborhood relentlessly, in fact, largely because of his expansive family. He has nine brothers and nine sisters in all, plus a virtual campaign team of nieces and nephews who all pitched in to help.
This is what democracy looks like.
When Lee first broached the idea of running for office, however, his father was concerned.
“He said we are a very modest family, and that in Thailand you have to have a lot of money to run for office,” Lee said. That often included bribes.
“I said, Dad, that’s not how we do it in this country,” Lee said.
Lee, a gregarious young man with a perpetual smile and a firm handshake, graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, which he attended with the help of grants and scholarships. He said education will be a focus for him at the Legislature because his family’s success in America was due to a good education. Public safety, police relations and help for small business owners are also priorities of the neighborhood, Lee said.
Though it was his first race, Lee has been involved in politics since he was a teen, interning or volunteering for Steve Simon, now Minnesota secretary of state; Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang, and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.
“It’s a lot different being the candidate,” Lee said with a smile. “It’s a lot more work, a lot more responsibility.”
Yang said of Lee, “He’s young, he’s motivated and he’s ambitious. He wants a part of the American dream. I think that’s wonderful.”
Lee, who now works for Simon in the Secretary of State’s office, became interested in politics because his father is a community leader. “That’s how I got interested in politics, just watching my dad in the community,” said Lee. He studied political science, but at first was turned off by electoral rancor. But Lee began to see elected office as a way to help his neighbors on the North Side.
The district had been represented by Mullery for 20 years. Lee acknowledged Mullery did some good things for the area, but the district’s demographics are changing, he said. It’s now split among whites (38 percent), blacks (36 percent), Asians and East Africans. “I think we probably have one of the most diverse districts in the state right now,” Lee said.
That’s why he challenged a sitting DFLer for the seat. Lee thought it was time someone new represented that demographic. Lee will be the first Hmong from Minneapolis to serve at the state level, and he’ll be one of the youngest legislators.
The attack on immigrants by Donald Trump has troubled Lee. “It’s tough,” Lee said. “It’s tough on our state. Our people from Southeast Asia have come here and done good things for the state, the city and the nation, and we shouldn’t be hearing those things from a person who wants to be the next leader of the country.”
Lee’s bid for office is, in fact, a direct rebuttal to those attacks. He’s come from a refugee camp, lived in a public housing project, and now will move on to the Legislature.
That’s what democracy looks like. Fortunately, it’s also what America looks like.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin