St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao was back at work on Wednesday, saying his “heart is in the right place” despite allegations of voting-related misconduct.
Mayor Melvin Carter and Thao’s colleagues on the council have remained silent since Thao was charged with three misdemeanors Tuesday allegedly for helping an elderly woman fill out her ballot when he was running for mayor last year. Meanwhile, his supporters are standing by him.
“He was actually being a good Samaritan,” said Bruce Faribault, a St. Paul resident who donated $50 to Thao’s mayoral campaign last year. “I don’t think there was any damage.”
David Krall, an election judge who was present during the Nov. 6 incident, said he thinks it’s been blown out of proportion.
“I don’t remember anyone saying, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the wrong thing,’ ” Krall said. “I still support Dai Thao as a City Council person because I think he does an excellent job.”
On Wednesday, Council Member Jane Prince described Thao as “a good colleague” and said she’s reserving judgment until he has his day in court. Council Member Dan Bostrom was more critical: “It’s disappointing to see something like this happen,” he said.
Most council members either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment.
Thao was first elected in 2013, and is the city’s first Hmong council member. He represents the First Ward, which includes the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods, and has a strong base in the Hmong community.
In a text message Wednesday evening, Thao said, “My family and I appreciate all the supports I’ve received. Everyone knows my heart is in the right place.”
This isn’t the first time Thao’s actions during his mayoral campaign have come under scrutiny.
Last year, Thao was cleared following a criminal investigation of an allegation that he attempted to solicit donations from a lobbyist in exchange for help with city business.
After that incident, Rondo community leader Marvin Anderson said he met with Thao to get his side of the story. He plans to do the same now.
“I think the world of Dai,” he said. “I’m not the one to say, ‘He did it.’ ”
Thao admitted to helping the woman fill out her ballot, and his attorney said in a statement Tuesday that “there is no allegation that Mr. Thao did anything intentionally wrong.” State law bars candidates from assisting voters at the polls.
Anderson and other Thao supporters said they’re wondering if cultural differences — namely, the Hmong tradition of respect for elders — played a role in the council member’s actions.
But former Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang, that city’s first Hmong council member, said Thao shouldn’t be treated differently from any other elected official.
“It might have been a harmless mistake, but it was a mistake that a candidate shouldn’t make,” Yang said. “These aren’t rules that people tell you, but these are things that are probably commonsensical that you should know.”
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.