Hmong leaders consider value of identity politics after losing seatsby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The upcoming retirements of St. Paul lawmakers Mee Moua and Cy Thao means there won't be a Hmong legislator at the Capitol next session -- for the first time in about nine years.
Last week, four candidates of Hmong descent tried to succeed Moua in the DFL primary election on St. Paul's East Side, but they lost to former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington.
Some political watchers predict it could be a while before the next Hmong-American is elected to the Legislature.
Pakou Hang and Tou Ger Xiong are well-known activists in Hmong-American DFL circles. They're both in their 30s, college-educated, and worked on Mee Moua's campaign several years ago.
In the race for Moua's Senate seat, both Hang and Xiong scribbled down the breakdown of the election results, and couldn't resist doing the math.
"That's what he won by, and this is all four of them combined," Hang says, pointing out that John Harrington, an African-American, won the DFL nomination with 31 percent of the vote in a nine-way race. The ballots cast for the four Hmong-American candidates totaled 42 percent.
Xiong believes if the Hmong community would have unified behind one candidate, as some pushed for during the campaign, that contender may have stood a chance of winning. Xiong believes Harrington was a formidable candidate, but says the former police chief didn't have to campaign nearly as hard as his opponents.
"I didn't think he did much. Strategically speaking, if I were him, I wouldn't do anything, either. I mean, I'm running against four Hmong candidates who are going to take each other's votes," Xiong said. "So I don't think John Harrington won the primary. I think we, as the Hmong community, lost."
But neither Xiong or Pakou Hang think consolidating the Hmong vote was the answer, and they say the fact that four Hmong candidates got into the ring is a sign of political vibrancy in their community. Both activists supported different candidates.
Hang knows a bit about grassroots campaigns, and about "descriptive representation" -- the idea that candidates who look like their constituents should be elected to serve them. Hang ran unsuccessfully three years ago for a seat on the St. Paul City Council.
She said the two Hmong state lawmakers were an inspiration.
"When people saw Mee Moua or Cy Thao, they said, 'If those people can be elected officials, I can, too.' In that way, it's sad that we won't have someone like that," Hang said.
Yet Hang said she's not losing sleep over last week's primary. She said it's more important that elected officials share her values, rather than her ethnic background.
Both Hang and Xiong say they're encouraged by other measures of political engagement in their community. They recall just a decade ago, when they were making calls to rouse the Hmong electorate while working on Mee Moua's campaign.
"Before, people didn't have any idea: 'What do I bring? Do I need an ID? Where do I go? Can I go by myself? Do I need a translator?'" Xiong said. "This time around, a lot of non-English speaking elders said, 'Yeah, I know where to go. I know how to mark the boxes.'"
And it's not just the elders who are becoming politically savvy. Xiong says he was excited to see so many Hmong-American teen-agers wearing T-shirts supporting the various candidates leading up to the East Side primary.
One of the candidates, 23-year-old Chai Lee, even had some help from a pair of local Hmong-American hip-hop artists.
Lee, a recent college graduate and youngest of the candidates, received the second-highest number of votes.
Hang, who worked on Lee's campaign, says this is just the beginning of Hmong-American politics. And she says the youthfulness of the candidates represents a break from what some refer to as "homeland politics," which favor a candidate's ties to clan elders or even to former military General Vang Pao. Candidate Vang Lor, for instance, claimed to have the support of the former military leader, who lives in California.
"Tuesday definitively said this is the new game. If you want to be a Hmong leader, this is the way you do it. It's no longer about backroom deals. It's no longer about being anointed. It's about working hard, mobilizing a base, and turning them out," Hang said.
But others caution that it could be a while before another Hmong-American is elected to the state Legislature. Roy Magnuson is active in St. Paul DFL politics, and he doesn't see any likely vacancies emerging in the areas that are home to strong Hmong populations.
"This is an interesting time. It's a high-water mark, and it may go next year back to a low-water mark. So that's the other part of the story," Magnuson said.
On the other hand, DFL primary winners John Harrington and Rena Moran appear likely to succeed Mee Moua and Cy Thao in these heavily DFL districts.
And if they win the general election, they would make history as the first African-American state lawmakers to represent St. Paul.
- All Things Considered, 08/17/2010, 5:24 p.m.