With supporters filling the courtroom behind him, St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao pleaded not guilty Tuesday to three misdemeanor charges arising from his actions at a polling place last year.
Thao appeared calm when he arrived at the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center Tuesday afternoon, dressed in a dark suit and coat and flanked by four other men. Inside, a crowd gathered, and some held signs that read, “Where are the translators, Ramsey County Elections?”
“I’m here to show my support for Dai,” said community organizer Carlos Garcia Velasco. “It’s terrible he’s being treated this way.”
While running for mayor last year, Thao allegedly drove an elderly woman who did not speak English to a polling place and helped her fill out her ballot — something that Minnesota law prohibits candidates from doing. Thao has said he was trying to help the woman vote.
Thao faces one gross misdemeanor charge of unlawfully marking a ballot and petty misdemeanor charges of misconduct in and near polling places and unlawfully assisting a voter. He has said he won’t resign his council seat, and a misdemeanor conviction would not require him to do so.
After the two-minute appearance before Ramsey County Judge Richard Kyle, Thao’s attorney, Joe Dixon, said there’s no dispute about the facts of the case. He also said there was no interpreter available at the polling place on the day Thao took the woman to vote.
“We contend that his conduct was lawful,” Dixon said.
In a statement after the hearing, Thao said he did not do anything intentionally wrong.
“I was only helping a disabled elderly woman with a language barrier so that she could vote,” he said. “We need to do more to make sure all citizens can vote.”
The approximately 20 people who came to support Thao on Tuesday contended that the language and physical barriers the woman faced at her polling place were a more serious problem than a candidate helping her vote.
“There [were] no people who could interpret for her? Are you kidding me?” said longtime St. Paul resident Joy Sorensen Navarre, as she stood outside the courtroom waiting for the hearing to begin.
Sorensen Navarre and other supporters spoke highly of Thao’s character and work as a council member, describing him as a passionate leader who fights for the underdog. Inside the courtroom, some held signs that read, “Don’t punish an Eagle Scout,” in reference to Thao.
“Politics sometimes is ugly, but he’s a fair person, [an] honest person,” said Touachongka Vue Xiong, a resident of Thao’s ward.
Thao became St. Paul’s first Hmong council member when he won a special election in 2013. He was reelected in 2015, and launched his mayoral campaign the following year.
This is the second time Thao has faced allegations of misconduct during the mayoral campaign. In April, a lobbyist alleged that Thao’s campaign solicited a bribe in exchange for help with city business.
After an investigation by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Scott County attorney’s office declined to file charges.
Thao’s next court appearance will be an omnibus hearing on April 2.