Dai Thao is scrambling to move past the biggest disruption in his political career as he tries to break out in a highly competitive St. Paul mayor’s race.
St. Paul’s first Hmong-American City Council member is known for his bold political style and stances, from removing police from a civilian review board to pushing banks to fight racial disparities. He has drawn ardent supporters and detractors, and both sides are watching closely as investigators dig into allegations his mayoral campaign solicited a bribe.
The allegations against Thao and his former campaign manager Angela Marlow emerged last weekend and stem from a February meeting between Thao, lobbyist Sarah Clarke and some of Clarke’s clients about a potential ban on certain food containers. Thao asked for “resources” during that meeting and Clarke said it seemed clear he meant a campaign contribution. After the meeting, Marlow texted Clarke asking for a donation and added, “We will certainly rethink this issue.”
News of the allegations came out during DFL caucuses, where Thao finished behind Melvin Carter but ahead of Pat Harris. Thao noted he still managed to secure strong delegate support.
“I’ve spoken with many people and they continue to support me,” he wrote in an e-mail Friday. “I will continue to work hard to earn the support of all residents and win in November!”
Since last weekend, Council President Russ Stark and others have critiqued how Thao operates at City Hall, and said he is more willing than most to trade favors.
But other community members who have worked with Thao, like TakeAction Executive Director Dan McGrath, said they haven’t encountered that. Thao has a more direct style than many city leaders, they said, but is working hard to serve the diverse and low-income First Ward.
“I think he’s a fighter,” McGrath said. “And we, many of us, have seen him achieve results through the work that he does. That’s what I know. And it remains to be seen what comes of this.”
Thao said he has a reputation for being accessible, driving hard bargains and getting things done for his constituents.
Hmong 18 Council President Wa Houa Vue had a similar assessment of the council member. He said Thao doesn’t make empty promises and has built good relationships with Hmong and African-American residents in his ward, which includes Frogtown and the Summit-University neighborhoods.
Vue was initially shocked by the allegations, which the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is investigating.
“Later on,” he said, he realized “there may be politics involved … Until there’s any proof, I don’t see anything that really concerns me.”
He and many others, like Nieeta Presley, said they are waiting for the BCA’s investigation before jumping to any conclusions. Presley is the director of a Rondo-based community organization and has worked with Thao on local projects.
“I respect Dai Thao,” she said. “As far as the allegations, I don’t think they are true. I don’t think Dai would go there. He doesn’t need to do that.”
Jean Schroepfer, who lives in Thao’s ward, said she once asked whether he was concerned that Carter has a much bigger campaign war chest.
“Oh, I don’t need that,” Schroepfer said he told her. “I go door-to-door.”
She said his face-to-face engagement is what got him elected to the City Council.
Mark Pfeifer, director of programs at the Hmong Cultural Center, often spots him at community events — from big celebrations like the Little Mekong Night Market to small events like a birthday party.
Not everyone said Thao is a familiar face.
“I don’t have much of a connection to him,” Summit-University Planning Council President Amy Michael said pointedly, noting that she’s lived in the neighborhood for 26 years.
Focus on racial injustice
Thao’s campaign literature stands out among the six candidates competing for the mayor’s job.
It features a haunting black-and-white image of Thao as a child at a Thai refugee camp. Next to it, white lettering proclaims “Dai Thao for mayor.”
Thao lost three siblings during their exile from Laos — that painful fact is often one of the first things voters learn about him. He shares it when he introduces himself at mayoral candidate forms.
Thao’s family eventually landed in a housing project in north Minneapolis, where, he said, he endured poverty and racism.
About 20 years ago, he got involved in community organizing after participating in a campaign to make a radio host apologize for an offensive comment about Hmong-Americans. His background of standing up to racial injustice and overcoming oppression shapes much of Thao’s work on the City Council, where he is the only person of color.
Thao said he decided to run for mayor because he saw so many people in St. Paul who wanted change and weren’t getting a fair share of city services and investments.
Pfeifer has known Thao since his days as a community activist. He was shocked to learn about the allegations against Thao’s campaign. He was also shocked in 2013, when Thao decided to run for City Council.
“He didn’t seem like a typical smooth politician,” Pfeifer said. “He said what he thought and he wasn’t afraid to burn bridges, so he would say tough things against racism.”
Thao has gotten into a Facebook fight with the police chief over comments about changing police policies to end racism. And initially he was the lone council member to advocate for removing police from the city’s police-civilian review committee, though the majority of council members eventually joined him.
Thao’s firm stance on that issue has earned him a lot of young supporters, like Yingya Vang, who is Thao’s campaign coordinator.
While the allegations are serious and scary, Vang said it also makes her want to keep fighting the status quo.