Susan Pha trades glances with the little girl in the photo on her desk almost every day.
The 3-year-old girl has worried eyes, wispy hair and grips a sign with her name and a number given to her at the refugee camp in Thailand. The photo is of Pha, taken shortly before she came to the United States.
The morning after Pha made history in Brooklyn Park, becoming the City Council’s first member of color, she again looked at the little girl. “We lived in dirt, in huts,” Pha said. “It reminds me where I came from.”
Pha’s successful campaign in Brooklyn Park — one of the state’s most diverse cities — joins several other landmark wins for candidates of color in Minnesota, including Ilhan Omar’s resounding victory in a state House race that made her the nation’s first Somali-American legislator.
In the Hmong community alone, it’s been a banner year, said state Sen. Foung Hawj, who represents the East Side of St. Paul. A founding member of the Hmong-American DFL Caucus, Hawj travels across the country to help candidates run for office. By Hawj’s count, at least eight Hmong-Americans snagged wins in local and state races nationwide — the most he can remember.
Those successes include Pha’s race in Brooklyn Park and Fue Lee’s in Minneapolis, where he became the city’s first Hmong-American state legislator.
Other Hmong-Americans preceded them in political office. Blong Yang became the first to win election to the Minneapolis City Council, in 2013. And Mee Moua became the first Hmong-American woman elected to a state legislature in 2002, when she won a seat in the Senate, where she served until 2010.
For political newcomers, mentoring from elected officials can make a difference, and the Hmong network of support is robust and openhanded.
When Pha decided to run, she leaned on acquaintances in politics, including Hawj. His first tip: Look beyond her immediate circle.
“I advised her to broaden her outreach beyond the Hmong community,” Hawj said. “And I think she followed that model very effectively.”
Pha also looked for advice to Dai Thao, who in 2013 was elected as St. Paul’s first Hmong-American City Council member.
He counseled her to knock on plenty of doors and to brace herself for criticism when those doors swing open.
Thao also helped connect Pha with her campaign manager, Cindy Yang, who had worked for Thao’s campaign when he was seeking re-election last year.
Pha’s team raised more than $36,000, with an average contribution of $154, according to her most recent campaign finance report. Her opponent, Amy Hanson, raised $1,300.
Pha snagged the DFL endorsement and scooped up nearly 52 percent of the vote in the primary and 57 percent in the general election.
“All that door-knocking paid off,” Pha said.
Models of success
Pha, a 39-year-old mother of four, said she didn’t think politics was in the cards for her.
But a picture on Facebook helped change her mind. The photo showed a diverse group of kids shadowing the city’s all-white, all-male Brooklyn Park City Council.
“It wasn’t a diverse perspective,” Pha said. Soon after, her husband, Nicolas Pha, suggested she run.
Susan Pha, who worked in real estate for 16 years, now writes children’s books, which she self-publishes through her business, Pha Publishing.
One of those books, “Success That Looks Like Me, ”highlights the stories of 25 successful Hmong-Americans.
She doesn’t include herself in the collection, but Pha said she hopes her own story will help model the way for young people.
Pha knows the doubts of her critics by heart. During door-knocking, residents questioned her allegiances and background.
“I’ve had people say I don’t belong here in Brooklyn Park,” said Pha, who has lived in the city for nine years. “I may be Hmong, but I represent everyone in my district.”
Others questioned the political first-timer’s experience.
And while she said she’s dealt with racist comments on social media, a crowd of more than 100 supporters packed City Hall on Nov. 14 to see Pha sworn in. She took over a seat left vacant when John Jordan moved out of Brooklyn Park in August.
“It’s about time,” Mayor Jeff Lunde said of her historic win.
For newcomers to local government, the learning curve can be steep. Pha assumed her duties just weeks before the city passed its budget for the coming year.
“It’s arguably the most difficult time to step in,” Lunde said.
Moving forward, Pha said her focus will be on economic development, transportation and youth programs. She said she wants to form a youth commission, tweak community center policies and encourage more businesses in town to offer paid internships by partnering with the city to fund them.
In the coming months, as she combs over documents, preps for meetings and learns her way in office, Pha said she’s going to hang on to the picture of the little girl on her desk.