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The Soul of a New Political Machine Is Hmong

BY: The New York Times, February 2, 2002, Saturday

Early on Election Day here this week, Xy Yang, a Hmong immigrant, took the exam for United States citizenship. That night she went to the polls.

It did not matter to Ms. Yang, 43, that she could not vote yet, said her son, John, who took her to the polls. She simply wanted to watch the lines of voters -- many of them also Hmong refugees who fled Laos three decades ago -- come to the immigrant-rich precincts of St. Paul's East Side neighborhood to elect one of their own to state office.  

By the end of Tuesday night, Mee Moua, a Democrat, had won handily, winning 51 percent of the vote in a four-way race for the State Senate seat vacated by Randy Kelly, who was elected mayor of St. Paul in November.

Ms. Moua (pronounced MOOah) became the first Hmong to be elected to an American state legislature. And, at least in its own eyes, the Hmong community in the United States had achieved a new status.

"After 25 years, the community is finally engaged in the mainstream political stream," said Lee Pao Xiong, a Hmong leader in Minneapolis. "We are no longer visitors to the country."

Ms. Moua, 32, is a lawyer and lobbyist who fled Laos with her family when she was a child. She characterized her election as a watershed event for the Hmong, refugees from the wars in Southeast Asia, who struggled to find a place in the United States.

"What we've done is actually bring to life the Hmong-American identity," Ms. Moua said. "We've always been viewed as refugees. As a people, we've never really had a country."

Minnesota is a logical place for such a political first; the Hmong population in the state has more than doubled since 1990, to nearly 41,000. More than half of the Hmong live in St. Paul, which has the largest group of Hmong in the country.

But fighting the image that Hmong cannot assimilate easily has been a challenge even in St. Paul, particularly after several highly publicized violent episodes, including the case of a Hmong mother who strangled her six children in 1998.

Such domestic conflicts dramatized the stresses on an immigrant group more isolated and non-Western than nearly any other to come to America, said David Zander, a cultural anthropoligist with the State Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, a legislative advisory group.

"Everything you can think about, there's a world view that's different for the Hmong," Mr. Zander said. Before coming to the United States, the Hmong had virtually no contact with Western culture, and even after arriving they had strong beliefs about spirit influence on health, arranged marriages, clan leadership and the healing power of animal sacrifice.

But in the last three years, younger and more assimilated Hmong, like Ms. Moua, have become active politically, in part to act as brokers between two cultures, Mr. Zander said.

Last year, a Hmong ran for the State House of Representatives and another, for the State Senate, but lost. Ms. Moua's victory, Mr. Zander said, was the first signal that a Hmong can win wide support among the often divided group and can do so in a district that is 60 percent white.

"I wouldn't have won with just the Hmong vote alone," Ms. Moua said, sitting in her modest campaign headquarters, which doubles as her husband's real estate office. "There were non-Hmong voters who saw me as someone who would represent them. That's even more significant to the Hmong community."

As a law student at the University of Minnesota, Ms. Moua said, she had dreamed of creating a system to register and motivate Hmong voters.

Her campaign was helped significantly, she said, by changes in welfare laws in 1996 requiring citizenship for eligibility and by federal laws passed two years ago allowing Hmong men who worked with American forces in Southeast Asia, as well as their wives, to take citizenship exams in their native language.

Ms. Moua set up an efficient and aggressive political organization, using scores of Hmong volunteers. They found the new Hmong citizens, taught them how to vote, assembled drivers to give them rides to the polls and sent interpreters when they were needed. In all, her organization was able to turn out a bloc of 800 to 1,000 Hmong voters in both the primary and general elections, her campaign estimated.

Ms. Moua said she also worked to bridge traditional divisions among Hmong sects, largely by ignoring the attitudes of Hmong elders, who initially resisted the idea of a woman as a political leader in her district.

In the end, Ms. Moua's tactics produced an unprecedented Hmong vote in a district accustomed to small turnouts, and her campaign says it provided the difference.

In the Democratic primary on Jan. 15, she defeated Tim Mahoney, a state representative, by 170 votes. On Tuesday, her 51 percent of the vote dwarfed the 29 percent for the runner-up, Greg Copeland, a marketing consultant and a Republican.

"If anything comes out of this, it is that we have created a political machine, a Hmong voting bloc," said Tou Ger Xiong, a St. Paul artist and one of Ms. Moua's campaign coordinators. "This is bigger than Minnesota." GRAPHIC: Photo: Mee Moua and her husband, Yee Chang, were cheered as they approached the podium at Ms. Moua's campaign headquarters on Tuesday night, when she was elected to the Minnesota Senate, becoming the first Hmong elected to an American state legislature. (Carlos Gonzalez/The Star Tribune, via Associated Press)