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A healthy impatience pulls Hmong to politics

BY: Lori Sturdevant - October 19, 2000, Thursday

There's nothing like running for office to make an immigrant feel like an American.      

Former U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, a native of Germany, has said as much. Former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Knute Nelson, a native of Norway, surely would say so, if he hadn't been dead since 1923.      

Cy Thao says so too. As the Independence Party's candidate in House District 65A, the 28-year-old is in the vanguard of the Hmong community's march into Minnesota politics.      

Somebody apparently forgot to tell Thao that the district's DFL incumbent, Andy Dawkins, usually crushes his opponents with 75 percent of the vote. Thao isn't just running. He's sprinting, spreading an infectious enthusiasm for democracy as he goes.      

"The best way to become an American is to get involved in politics," Thao says. With his name on the ballot, "no one can deny my citizenship."      

No one should want to. Thao's candidacy is among many welcome signs that the displaced Laotian peasants who began moving to Minnesota in the 1970s are coming of age as Americans.      

Those signs are nowhere more apparent than along University Avenue in St. Paul, between Lexington Avenue and the Capitol. What was a seedy stretch 10 years ago, pockmarked with vacancies and stores you wouldn't take your grandmother into, is now a lively Hmong-American retail strip. But for the Asian-sounding names on the buildings, the shops and restaurants might fit on any Main Street.      

The aging housing stock in the Frogtown neighborhood surrounding University Avenue has also had a facelift, at the hands of Hmong homeowners.      

Among the St. Paul Hmong, incomes are up, welfare dependency is down, and involvement in community organizations is growing fast.      

One of those organizations is the DFL Party. It began to present itself as a natural political home soon after the first Hmong families arrived.

The late U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento sponsored legislation to ease their way into U.S. citizenship. DFL legislators _ including Dawkins _ befriended their community.    

In 1991, when Choua Lee became the first Hmong-American to win elective office by snaring a seat on the St. Paul school board, she did it with DFL backing. Neal Thao followed her to the board in 1995, again with DFL support.      

But this year, Aly Xiong's try for St. Paul's District 67A seat in the Minnesota House was thwarted in the DFL primary. The DFL in St. Paul is awash in entrenched incumbents and deserving successors. The party cannot easily make room for would-be Hmong candidates.      

The situation has produced a healthy impatience, particularly among Cy Thao's contemporaries. They may have been born in Laos, as he was, but they were reared primarily in Minnesota. They are citizens, they are educated, and they are wise to the ways of attaining power and influence in Minnesota. They appreciate the willingness of DFL politicians to speak for them, but they would prefer to speak for themselves.      

When the Independence Party approached Thao, an artist and former elementary school teacher, to run for Dawkins' seat, he was quick to see it as the opportunity it was _ not to win the seat on the first try, but to organize a Hmong political network that would magnify the community's strength. That's why his campaign pitch is one part vote-for-me, one part how-to-vote.      

"Win or lose, we want to create a Hmong voting block," Thao says. "We've got to do that to be sure to have a voice 10 years from now. Right now, the Hmong are still interested in working as a group. Ten years from now, they will be scattered. We have to establish a tradition of political cohesiveness now, and make it a basic part of community life. If we can do that, we'll be taken seriously by all the parties."      

Thao has the sort of ambition that won't be denied _ and won't hold to the establishment's timetable. This may not be Thao's year. But he is convinced that his year is coming, and he is convincing voters of the same thing. As Dawkins supporter Katie McWatt told Thao as he campaigned Tuesday at a Selby Avenue coffee shop, "You are on your way."


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