Dai Thao doesn’t like being underestimated.
As early as elementary school, he spotted inequalities. He challenged the teacher of his English as a Second Language class: Why weren’t they learning what other students learned? Why were the expectations lower?
“She told me I could leave,” said Thao, a St. Paul City Council member who came to the United States from Thailand with his family as a boy. “So I just got up, and I left.”
It would be a recurring theme in the years to come: Thao, frustrated by inequity and injustice, trying to do something about it.
In his bid for mayor of St. Paul — a race against nine candidates, including two former council members — he’s asking voters to buy into his vision of a city built on equity, trust and providing greater financial opportunities to those who have spent their lives living with less.
He’s also asking them to move past an allegation into whether his campaign tried to solicit a bribe. Thao, 42, has denied it from the start, and the Scott County attorney’s office recently declined to prosecute following an investigation. Now, he wants to move past it, including any anger he may feel toward those who leveled the allegations.
“I want to be an example to the community,” he said. “So much of the narrative now is white supremacy, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim. Coming to this country, I always thought this was paradise. And it can be. But we need to forgive each other and work together.”
Thao, who has represented the First Ward since 2014 and works as an IT manager for the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery, acknowledged that his candidacy likely makes those residents “who have a lot” uncomfortable with him and his focus on creating greater opportunities for black residents, immigrants, women and millennials. But, he said, a Thao administration would ensure that city services were provided equitably, using data analysis of what works and what doesn’t and listening to the community to set budget and program priorities. That analysis would be public.
“The things we are good at, the public is going to see that. The things we aren’t good at, the public is going to see that,” he said. “And that will give us political leverage.”
‘Little guy, big brain’
Thao’s family came to the United States in 1983. Two sisters and a younger brother died before the family left Thailand. He remembers living in Minneapolis public housing, scrounging through garbage bins to find toys and envying other children’s new clothes and shoes.
He left Minnesota as a teenager to join an uncle in Montana and began college there — only to put it all on hold when his family was about to be displaced from public housing. At age 21, he bought a house in Fridley and became the family breadwinner. He learned information technology, taking jobs with nonprofits, and worked as a community activist.
He also experienced financial hardship. A job change made it hard for him to make his mortgage payment and his family was evicted from their Fridley house in 2010.
“That whole experience gave me insight into folks who lose their homes,” Thao said.
Thao’s uncle, Lucky Yang, was a liaison for the CIA in Laos during the war. He said his nephew is driven to help people improve their lives.
“He’s a little guy, but a big brain. A very intelligent guy and very straightforward,” Yang said. “When he sees something that is not right, he will walk right into it and lead people the right way.”
Thao frequently jokes about his height on the campaign trail and even created a short podium he nicknamed “the people’s podium.”
Every Tuesday, he stands behind it in different St. Paul neighborhoods and talks about city issues. His campaign posts videos of the “Thao Action Tuesday” speeches on Facebook. He surprised many voters last month when he announced at one of the talks that he disagrees with the rezoning plan for the former Ford plant site.
The city has “bulldozed through” the plan, Thao said, drowning out community members’ voices.
“A good plan would not have that much opposition, would not have that much animosity,” he said, adding that he wants to see more emphasis on providing affordable housing there.
Thao is more supportive of another issue before St. Paul: increasing the minimum wage to $15. He said he would support the wage increase, but the city must help small businesses make the transition.
Phil Steger, an attorney with Dorsey & Whitney law firm, met Thao about 10 years ago through ISAIAH, a faith-based coalition of churches that works on social justice issues. What struck Steger about Thao, he said, was “his clarity. Ambiguity and confusion don’t often get results. He has clarity of values.”
Thao, he said, is rare.
“Most people don’t have a heightened sense of injustice, a heightened sense that something needs to be done about it, without being resentful. Dai tries to pick people up,” said Steger, who ended up managing Thao’s successful campaign for City Council in 2013. He won the seat vacated by now-mayoral rival Melvin Carter III.
Not cops’ pick
Steger points to St. Paul’s recently enacted sick time ordinance and Thao’s work to remove police officers from the city’s Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission as proof of his values. Thao turned the tide on the City Council for the police vote, said Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota. The organization has endorsed Thao for mayor.
“He made it clear that it wasn’t just his cause,” said McGrath. “It was the cause of the community.”
David Titus, who represents St. Paul’s 625 officers as president of the St. Paul Police Federation, takes a different view.
“Dai has bashed the police for years,” Titus said, adding that his group has endorsed Pat Harris. “We do not believe he would be the best mayor for public safety in our city.”
Thao, Titus said, “is easily swayed by very aggressive advocacy groups. He pretty much doesn’t listen to common sense approaches.”
Thao said he is not “anti-police” and pointed to his continuing support for the development of a new police training facility. He said he pushed for the civilian review changes to restore public trust in the police by communities that haven’t felt protected.
“The way to eliminate that is to listen to what the community wants,” he said.