Blong Yang knows he is a big underdog in his race for an open seat on the Hennepin County Board, but then again, he's used to that.
Yang faces a longtime senator and the DFL-endorsed candidate, Linda Higgins, who has the name recognition, the party backing and the money.
But Yang has already surprised plenty of people by coming in second in the primary through hustle and by getting out the small but loyal Hmong vote in the Second District.
It's shocking, but if Yang finds a way to pull off an upset, he'd be the first minority member of the board.
His fledgling campaign, which had been under the local media radar, is getting a bounce right now because of a catchy music video he commissioned featuring two young Asian musicians. The song, "All This and More," is an original that includes rapping by Chael Young and singing by PK Yang, a young woman with a powerful voice who sings about bringing new voices and visions into politics. The piece (tinyurl.com/9yrv64n) is so infectious, it somehow got the attention of Comedy Central blogger Dan Poppy, who wrote:
"The best part of Blong's video is the part where I still have no idea what a county commissioner is or does but couldn't care less because of the MUSIC. The other best part is the whole thing. It's aspirational and earnest and definitely the sort of song the Black Eyed Peas would write for the Obama campaign."
The song is indeed aspirational, but it doesn't say much about something every bit as inspirational: Yang's life.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Yang emigrated with his parents to Oklahoma when he was 3. They had nothing and spoke little English. Because his father couldn't get or keep work, possibly because of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, the family survived on government assistance and food stamps, something Yang is not ashamed to talk about.
"In Oklahoma, we were poor working-class," Yang said. "Then we moved to California and something changed."
They ended up on Aid to Families with Dependent Children to survive. Yet, at the same time his parents stressed hard work and education and told Yang and his seven siblings that they could achieve anything they wanted in America.
Yang, the oldest, who is now 36, believed them. He was the first child to graduate from college, from UCLA. He then moved to Minnesota to attend law school.
"My parents pushed education," he said. "If it was related to education, they found money for it."
But once in college, he had no family role models to follow. "I was on my own."
After law school, Yang worked for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, then started his own law firm. He eventually became an investigator for the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights. He asked to take a leave from his job to run for office but was denied.
So he quit.
His wife, Mai Neng Moua, is a writer and, while he campaigns, the breadwinner for Yang and their two young children.
Yang said he differs from Higgins on a few important areas. She voted for the Vikings stadium; he favored a referendum. He also says the county is wasting money by building a "signature" Lowry Avenue Bridge instead of just a functional one.
"I'm surprised he made that an issue," Higgins said. "It's the plan the community voted for. We deserve a nice bridge in our community."
Higgins, who grew up on a farm, said she's eager to move from the state Senate to get on a smaller, more nimble government where decisions are hands-on, nonpartisan and quicker.
She said her experience working on health and human services and environmental issues in the Legislature trumps Yang's inexperience. "That's pretty comfortable territory for me," she said.
As for Yang's video: "It's a little long, but it's good."
Asked if his upbringing would help him on the board, Yang was adamant: "Absolutely," he said. "I don't think there's anyone on the board that's had my experiences."
His first-hand memories of the welfare system would help in the Second District, where he says "68 percent of the residents are on some sort of government aid.
"To have the first minority on the board, to have someone who has been in that situation on the board, it's going to change the conversations."
While board positions are nonpartisan, Yang acknowledges that he's a Democrat. But he's frustrated by the lack of Hmong representation in government, so he's willing to take on the party establishment.
"You have to walk the talk," Yang said. "You say you want people of color in office, but it doesn't happen. Sometimes you have to kick the door in."