St. Paul has elected its first Hmong-American city council member. Dai Thao is an information technology specialist who’s never run for office before. He won a special election against six other candidates on Monday after the ranked-choice vote count took place.
Thao immigrated to the United States with his family 30 years ago. He was 8 years old, and he thought America was paradise, at first.
“But as I grew up in the projects, in the public housing, I began to see discrimination — people telling me to go back to my country,” Thao said. “I didn’t have a country to go to. And so, even though we live in the most powerful nation, the richest and wealthiest nation, we still have challenges.”
St. Paul’s 1st Ward includes Frogtown and nearby neighborhoods that are among the city’s poorest. Thao says he takes the challenges facing his ward seriously.
“I would look after the community and the neighborhoods and the children of this ward as my own children. I would look after the elders in this community as my own elders, and I will treat them with dignity and respect, and I will be open and accessible to my constituents,” he said.
Thao’s top priority is making sure the economic development created by the Central Corridor light rail line brings jobs to the people who live along it.
He has a chance to start working on that issue right away. Since this was a special election, Thao will be sworn in next week.
Former City Council Member Melvin Carter created a vacancy on the council in July, when he resigned to take a job with the state Department of Education. Nathaniel Khaliq was appointed to fill the seat temporarily. Khaliq didn’t run, but Noel Nix, who served as an aide to both Carter and Khaliq, was on the ballot.
Nix says he thinks Thao will be able to learn the ropes at city hall, but he also notes the work is challenging.
“Everything comes at you at once. It’s not so much a learning curve, but a learning wall,” Nix said. “And so if he’s able to continue to build the community relationships that he built during the campaign, he’ll have a coalition for success.”
Nix is black, as are Khaliq, Carter and every city council member who’s represented St. Paul’s 1st Ward since 1980. The rest of the council is white. But Nix doesn’t see his defeat as a sign African-Americans are losing clout in city politics.
“You know, we live in a time where the president of the United States is African-American. So all of us are open to the possibilities and to the potential of working across racial lines to pursue our shared interest,” he said.
Minneapolis just elected its first Hmong-American city council member as well. Blong Yang also won a seat traditionally held by African-Americans.
Hmong-Americans have been active in Minnesota politics for decades, but it’s clear their influence is on the rise. Lee Pao Xiong directs the center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University. Xiong said Hmong people were less involved in U.S. politics before the 2011 death of revered General Vang Pao.
“Many of the elders, and many of the Hmong people felt that we are here as visitors, and that one day we’re going to go back to a democratic Laos,” Xiong said. “After General Vang Pao died, that hope and that dream kind of died. And so people said we’re here in America. We’re United States citizens and we will be exercising our rights.”
Xiong notes about 40,000 Hmong-Americans live in St. Paul, enough of a potential voting bloc to elect a Hmong-American mayor one day.