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Grass roots still can work, as Moua's victory shows

By: Lori Sturdevant; Staff Writer, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) January 31, 2002, Thursday

If the atmosphere at 1202 Payne Av. in St. Paul on Tuesday _ special election day in Senate District 67 _ could have been bottled, it could have been sold as an antidote for cynicism about Minnesota politics.      

At midmorning, upwards of 50 people were bustling with lists and buzzing on cell phones, getting out the vote for DFL candidate Mee Moua.      

The wall was blotted with colorful notes bearing scores of names _ precinct captains, drivers, translators, "poll closers" to report results, attorneys able to counter any challenge a new citizen might encounter trying to vote for the first time.      

Gathered around the basement coffee urn were the candidate's mother and father, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and in-laws by the dozen, savoring Election Day excitement in several languages.      

Near them was a big district map with a marked-up plastic overlay, tacitly boasting of the last of the three times that the campaign's 300 volunteers canvassed every one of the district's 30,000 households.      

"I've never worked on a campaign with this many volunteers," beamed Amy Allen, a veteran among the rookies in the office. "I asked for help putting stickers on some literature, and 60 people showed up."      

The mood was upbeat _ as well it should have been. The Moua campaign was proving that grass-roots politics _ the stuff of shoe leather, call-a-friend, get registered and get-out-the-vote _ still works in Minnesota. Moua won handily on Tuesday, leading a four-person field with 51 percent of the vote.      

Her victory this week was sweet confirmation of the Moua campaign's real test in the Jan. 15 primary. That was when her grass-roots brigade went up against state Rep. Tim Mahoney, the favorite of what remains of the DFL Party's old-boy hierarchy on the East Side, and three other contenders.      

Moua had a lot going for her in that race _ charisma, energy, an inspiring personal story: born in Laos in 1969; childhood in refugee camps; strong student at Brown University: inspired to public service by the late Barbara Jordan at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas; University of Minnesota law school; corporate attorney at Leonard, Street and Deinard; president-elect of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce. She is an impressive speaker and an appealing moderate-to-liberal thinker.      

But her campaign's ace in the hole on primary day was its ability to make voters out of new Hmong citizens who had never before exercised the franchise. Some 500 of the primary's 4,400 voters _ most of them Hmong _ registered that day for the first time.      

"We had people who got their citizenship days before the primary, and called to ask us how they could vote," said Pakou Hang, Moua's campaign manager and cousin.      

There were a lot of calls as the Moua campaign aggressively sought out potential voters in the Hmong community. The campaign's first literature drop doubled as a Hmong census, Hang said. "We would ask, 'Are you a citizen? Who do you know who is a citizen? Have you ever voted?' "      

Volunteers were trained to conduct impromptu civics lessons, explaining the difference between a primary and a general election, demystifying registration, describing what happens at the polls. "Our get-out-the-vote calls are a lot more than reminders," Hang said.      

It proved to be a winning strategy. But Moua said she would have aimed her campaign at first-time Hmong voters even if the payoff were less clear.      

"If all I do is enfranchise one person who's been disenfranchised, it's worthwhile," Moua said days before the primary. "Then that person will be someone the political system will have to deal with in the future. That's what is driving me in this campaign."      

Because of her campaign, East Side politicians are going to have to deal with a lot of formerly disenfranchised Hmong voters in the future. And other Minnesota politicians are going to wonder whether her new-voters strategy would work for them. Moua could say it in Hmong _ but in Minnesotan, it was "quite the campaign."

City aid revisited      

As this column said last week, state aid to cities has become a complicated mess. Just how complicated was illustrated when officials in Albert Lea howled about my report that 85 percent of their city budget came from state aid. The real number is more like 57 percent, said City Manager Paul Sparks.      

That claim sent me back to the numbers wizards at the state Revenue Department. Gordon Folkman, assistant to the commissioner for state and local policy, explained that my numbers were state aid as a percentage of aid plus property tax levy, not as a percentage of total city revenue. Fees, interest earnings and other income can sometimes add up to sizable chunks of city revenue.      

I hereby amend the explanation of last week's numbers accordingly, with apologies to Albert Lea, Anoka, St. Cloud and Woodbury _ and thanks to Sparks, who said that while I explained the numbers badly, my point was right.     

He got in his own licks about state aid to cities in his official budget message last August: "The big shift to heavier dependence upon state aids has the desired effect of lowering property taxes but the undesired effect of making us more dependent upon actions of the state Legislature. . . . This makes Albert Lea as well as other cities in the state somewhat vulnerable to independent actions of the state Legislature . . . This is a dangerous situation for the long-term health of the city government." Amen.

_ Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at

lsturdevant@startribune.com.