When I first met Blong Yang a little more than a year ago, he was a huge underdog to DFL-endorsed Linda Higgins for an open Hennepin County Commissioner race.
Few people knew about the former investigator for the Department of Human Rights, and he was literally running on a song and a prayer.
One of the reasons I found Yang was because his campaign theme song, “All This and More,” had become a bit of an Internet sensation. A blogger for Comedy Central had compared it to something that might have been written by the Black Eyed Peas. In fact, it had been done by two local fans, Chael Young and PK Yang.
Yang lost to Higgins but did far better than anyone anticipated, pulling more than 40 percent of the vote. That gave him a lot of confidence, and soon people were urging him to run for the Minneapolis City Council seat vacated by Don Samuels.
On Nov. 5, Yang won on just the second ballot and joined a slate of other new council members who aim to change the look and feel of city government. The story line being touted is that voters and the DFL Party promoted a group of new, aspirational leaders whose race better mirrors the changing city.
“That’s the narrative, but I’m not sure that’s true [with me],” said Yang, 37.
We were sitting over coffee at Lowry Cafe in his north Minneapolis ward. He pushed a news release from the DFL across the table. It claimed the party “helped elect the first Somali, the first Hmong and the first Latina.”
“Let’s be honest here, they didn’t do anything for us,” Yang said. “We got zero help from anybody.”
The party didn’t endorse in the Fifth Ward, but some party vets privately backed candidate Ian Alexander. Not that it mattered.
“We made it clear we were not going to go away, we were not going to abide by an endorsement,” Yang said.
Yang said his three opponents focused on likely voters: residents of nursing homes and middle-class black residents on the North Side. But Yang’s team estimated there were more than 2,000 Hispanic, Somali and East African residents in the ward, and put a lot of effort into courting them.
“We were running this open campaign for the traditional voter, but behind the scenes we were working these groups hard,” said Yang.
It paid off. He said 1,300 more people voted than in the last election. “We take some credit for that.”
It has been an impressive journey for a guy who grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to the United States at age 3. His family was poor and for a while relied on Aid to Families With Dependent Children and food stamps to get by. So Yang is suited to empathize with the large number of people in his ward who live in poverty.
Yang, the oldest of seven children, was the first in his family to graduate from college, from UCLA. He then moved to Minnesota and got a law degree.
He was investigating human rights claims when he decided to run against Higgins. He was denied a leave of absence, so he quit.
Yang’s wife, Mai Neng Moua, is a writer who has paid the bills during his two campaigns. They have two young children.
After his loss to Higgins, Yang said his campaign workers took it hard. So did he. “When it finally hit me, it was a pretty long down period,” he said. “I wanted to close the door and not talk to anybody.”
As he prepares for his first stint as a public official, Yang is already facing the realities of politics.
“The first thing we do is pick a City Council president, so you start out from the beginning setting up friends and foes,” he said. “Without saying it directly, people have already told me if I don’t vote for Barb [Johnson] that I’m pretty much a traitor to the North Side.”
Yang shook his head.
As he campaigned, residents told Yang they were most concerned about safety issues and crime. That’s why he’ll push for more and better police protection in the area.
While Samuels was known for his endless appearances at crime scenes, consoling families and calling for change, that doesn’t sound like Yang’s style.
“I kind of don’t think it’s appropriate to make it a political event,” he said. “When these things happen, people want to be left alone.”
Yang’s tendency to be blunt has already been noted. When he was quoted saying that new Mayor Betsy Hodges might not get everything she wants, he was merely expressing the reality of a strong council system, not taking a shot at Hodges.
Some took it that way, however, and a union type warned him through a friend to “rein it in a little.”
“Everything I say is now under the microscope,” Yang said with a laugh. “But that’s the way I am. I’m just not that good of a politician.”