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In Minnesota's legislature, Hmong Americans find historic success

“Our community has laid stakes on the ground. ... This is our new home, this is our country, too. We are here now. And we aren’t going anywhere.”
Image: Jay Xiong, center rear, newly elected to Minnesota's legislature, at a campaign event.
Jay Xiong, center rear, newly elected to Minnesota's legislature, at a campaign event.Andrew L. Xiong

Samantha Vang was managing the campaign of a fellow Hmong American running for Minnesota’s state legislature when she decided to run herself at the urging of her team.

Vang, 24, registered just under the deadline, prevailed in a squeaker of a Democratic primary, and was elected in November. Vang is one of five Hmong Americans to be sworn in this month to Minnesota’s state House of Representatives.

“We feel like we have a place at the table,” Vang said.

Vang joins Kaohly Her, Jay Xiong and Tou Xiong as four newly minted Hmong-American Minnesota House members. A fifth Hmong American, Fue Lee, has served in the state’s House since 2017 and won his second term in November. All are members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Jay and Tou Xiong are not related.

These elections are a significant milestone for Hmong people who arrived in the U.S. as refugees to escape political persecution, said Madalene Mielke, president and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, a national nonprofit that promotes Asian Pacific American participation and representation in politics.

“Their children, or the young people who came as young children, are now serving in public office,” Mielke said.

Census estimates from 2017 put Minnesota’s Hmong population at around 85,000. The state’s community began to take shape in 1975 when Hmong people fled wars that destroyed their homelands in Laos, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Kaohly Her was 4 when she and her parents came to the U.S. in the late ’70s as refugees, she said. They lived in Illinois for a couple of years, then moved to Wisconsin.

Now married with two daughters, Her, 45, said she didn’t expect to run as a first-time candidate for the Minnesota House seat in her predominantly white and affluent neighborhood in St. Paul.

Just this past year, Mayor Melvin Carter had appointed Her as the city’s policy director.

“I was really secure and happy in my job,” Her said.

But Her also wanted more involvement in shaping the laws, she said.

Her mentioned education funding as one of her top legislative priorities. She said her experience working for St. Paul’s school board and superintendent’s office opened her eyes to the issues that needed to be addressed on the state level.

“That’s what started my interest in really being serious about the fact that it might require that I have to run for an office,” Her explained.

Many people encouraged her to give it a go, Her said. The campaign trail, she discovered, came with challenges.

“I did get questions like how could I be somebody who doesn’t look like the district that I represent,” Her said. “But I was really lucky in that my district was so progressive. And for them, it was about who has the ability to move our progressive agenda forward.”

Image: Tou Xiong
Tou XiongCourtesy

Tou Xiong, 28, had already cut his teeth on politics serving as a city councilman for the last three years in Maplewood, Minnesota, a short drive from St. Paul, the state’s capital.

Born and raised there to refugee parents, Tou Xiong said he believes his time on the council has prepared him for the practical work that goes into making policy and getting it passed.

“Many new individuals who get into the state House, it’s fiery speeches, it’s campaign rallies, and go there and change the world,” he said.

Vang, a native Minnesotan and daughter of refugees born in Laos, was serving as Jay Xiong’s campaign manager when her team urged her to run for an open state House seat that covers Brooklyn Center, a city just outside Minneapolis, she said.

Around 12 percent of Brooklyn Center’s roughly 31,000 residents identified as Hmong, according to 2017 census estimates.

With Jay Xiong’s blessings, Vang filed her paperwork the night before the June 5 registration deadline, she said.

“I saw how the Hmong community didn’t really understand what a county commissioner is or didn’t even know the first steps to voting,” Vang said, explaining why she chose to run.

Having worked on local campaigns before, Vang felt prepared for her own bid for office, she said. But like Her, she too faced challenges.

Vang said many people questioned her qualifications.

“I look pretty young — I am pretty young,” Vang said. “I think a lot of people thought I was a high schooler when I was knocking at their door, selling some cookies.”

But Vang prevailed in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary, defeating runner-up Cindy Yang, another Hmong-American woman, by just 118 votes.

On Election Day, she went on to best the Republican candidate, Robert Marvin, capturing 73 percent of the vote.

“This election shows that for Minnesota, in general, when we invest in our communities and diversity and inclusion, everyone benefits,” Vang said.

Image: Samantha Vang's family in Minnesota
Samantha Vang's family in Minnesota.Courtesy of Samantha Vang

Jay Xiong, Vang’s soon-to-be colleague in the state House, called Vang a “tireless champion” who has always fought for the community.

Born and raised in St. Paul, Jay Xiong, 36, grew up with his refugee parents who were farmers and spoke no English, he said in an email.

After graduating college, Jay Xiong said he went to work in the education field and has been involved in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party for more than a decade. He ran for his seat when state Rep. Sheldon Johnson, a good friend, decided to retire.

Jay Xiong also mentioned education as one of his top legislative priorities.

“I will dedicate myself to work hard for our children, who often don’t have a voice because they can’t vote, or because they are too hungry, too poor, or simply don’t have equal opportunities,” he wrote in an email.

The Hmong candidates elected to Minnesota’s House of Representatives, along with already-serving state Sen. Foung Hawj, have indeed been a source of pride for many.

Vang said she has been approached at meet-and-greets in middle schools by kids who have been inspired by her.

“A lot of the students see themselves in me,” she said.

Image: Samantha Vang's parents during the refugee resettlement process
Samantha Vang's parents during the refugee resettlement process.Courtesy of Samantha Vang

Her said she didn’t imagine that her win on Election Day would be as emotional as it was.

“As I was thinking about getting up there and talking in front of people, I realized I am my ancestors’ dream,” she said.

Tou Xiong said their collective victories this past November is validation of the efforts, struggles and persistence of the elder generation born in Laos who raised children in America.

“Seeing the five of us walking into the House chamber, it will speak a lot to the suffering and history of our people,” he said.

For Jay Xiong, it shows that great progress has been made.

“It means that in 40 years, our community has laid stakes on the ground and says that today, this is our new home, this is our country too,” he said. "We are here now. And we aren’t going anywhere.”

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