Steve Ly will make history this month as the nation's first Hmong-American mayor, though it's a historic moment that he says he acknowledges, but doesn't dwell on.
"It is significant for the Hmong community, but more importantly this is an American story," Ly, who was elected as mayor of Elk Grove, California — a city of 167,000 just outside of Sacramento — told NBC News. "It doesn't matter whether you came to America 20 years ago or 200 years ago, everyone has a story, and when you reach into the story of every individual in the United States you see the meaning of what America is about."
Born in Laos, Ly came to the United States as a refugee at four years old. His father had rescued downed American pilots during the CIA's secret war in Laos, for which he said his family was put on a must-kill list, forcing them to flee the country. Catholic Charities initially settled the family in Gardena, California, a community in Los Angeles County with a large Japanese-American and Korean-American population.
"I remember going to school and feeling frustrated because I couldn't communicate with the Japanese-American and Korean-American children and wondering how come they look Hmong but can't understand what I'm saying," Ly said.
After going back to school and retraining to become a mechanic, Ly's father was still unable to find work, so the family moved to Clovis, California, in order to get back into farming, growing cherry tomatoes, sugar peas, and strawberries.
"It was a family affair," Ly said. "My parents couldn't have done it without us kids. Every weekend it was getting up at four in the morning to go to the farm, and my parents' goal was to be farming by daylight. So that became all my teenage years, just constantly picking cherry tomatoes and hustling."
Ly attributes the start of his political activism to his time as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis, where he studied political science and sociology. "I started just going to meetings in Sacramento because that's where the Hmong community is, and there was such a need in the community for young people that are able to articulate the needs of the community," he said. "So I kind of just fell into it, and it became a part of me when I owned it and made these issues mine."
Ly realized that he needed to become a more active part of the political process while advocating that the City of Sacramento should hire bilingual teaching associates and police officers that could communicate with Hmong community members.
"I remember standing in front of City Council and getting the clear message from council members that, 'This is asking us to do something in addition to what we've already done. The money has been allocated accordingly, so now we'll look into it next year, but there is nothing we can do this year,'" Ly said. "That's when I realized that my involvement is being reactive to policies to those people in power, and I had that 'a-ha moment' when I said, 'I need to be in a position where I am proactive as opposed to reactive to policies,' and that's when I made the transition to run for school board."
Ly first ran for Elk Grove Unified School Board in 2002, and although he lost that election, he said that he learned a lot from that campaign about the importance of focusing on the needs of his local community. He then went to law school, and was subsequently elected trustee to the Elk Grove Unified School Board in 2012.
In 2014, Ly was elected to Elk Grove City Council, and the following year, became the city's first Asian-American vice mayor.
According to 2010 US Census figures, 26.3 percent of Elk Grove's population is Asian and 1.2 percent Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander alone. Of those, Ly estimates that only about 2,000 to 3,000 voters are Hmong American.
"That's why this is such a significant and ground-breaking race, because the perception is that a Hmong mayor in the City of Elk Grove would be indicative of a large Hmong community, which isn't the case," Ly said. "Elk Grove is middle class America. It's track homes, and it's working families, and the important thing here is that for any candidate, you have to win in a typical city that looks like the rest of America, and that's what Elk Grove is."
Ly said that his top priority is to create a city that is conducive to economic development and new jobs, to continue capital improvement projects on time and under budget, and to continue to build neighborhoods that communicate well with city government.
"Obviously, you can't deny the fact that I am an ethnic minority, you can't deny the fact that I came to this country at four years old as a refugee," Ly said. "What I did on the campaign was to embrace that completely, and say that's exactly what makes America great, the fact that our country continues to be a beacon of freedom for immigrants and refugees who come from all over the world to make something of themselves."
To other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders considering public office, Ly said that success is more difficult to find and there are assumptions to deal with — from the model minority and negative stereotypes to outright threats. Despite that, he said there is still hope.
"The threshold or the standard is held a lot higher," Ly said. "Everything that I do is scrutinized. That being the case, I have to ensure that I perform at a higher level, and I think Asian Americans have historically already seen that from the get go."
"When I see that kind of stuff, I realize that as beautiful this great nation is, there are certainly factions that don't want us to progress in that direction, so it breaks my heart," he added. "For every minority person who gets elected to office, these are real issues that we will see. But I'm hopeful."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the population size of Elk Grove, California.