ST. PAUL, Minn. (June 3, 2015) – Mee Moua, a former state senator from St. Paul who was the first Hmong American woman elected to a legislative office, will receive the Joan and Walter Mondale Award for Public Service at the Minnesota DFL’s 4th Annual Humphrey-Mondale Dinner, June 6, at the Hilton Minneapolis.
Born in Laos, Moua’s father was a medic during the Vietnam War. When Moua was 5-years-old, her family fled to Thailand and immigrated to the U.S. in 1978. Moua grew up in Wisconsin, earned an undergraduate degree from Brown University, a graduate degree from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and her law degree from the University of Minnesota.
Moua chose to study public policy in college at a time when a group of professors were deeply engaged in finding alternative solutions to the poverty issues in the United States.
“Growing up poor and a political refugee living in the United States I knew a whole lot about poverty polices in this country,” Moua said. “I felt that if I could combine my personal experiences with the policy that is made, I could contribute solutions that would really be helpful to the people who were supposed to be benefiting from these policies.”
During graduate school, Moua said she thought she would be a staff person in an executive branch of government agency helping elected officials to make policies. She never imagined she herself would be elected to office. Her life was set on a new course when she moved to Minnesota for law school and volunteered on her Uncle Neal Thao’s campaign for St. Paul School Board. Thao was successful, serving seven years on the board.
“Through that process that I became politically engaged and became part of the City of St. Paul DFL Party,” Moua said. “That’s how I knew about the electoral process in state of Minnesota and learned how important the precinct caucuses were and how important it was for the community to show up and to become part of the process.
“That experience really gave me insight into how campaigns, elections and voters working together to elect our leaders.”
When Moua and her family moved to St. Paul’s East Side, their state senator, Randy Kelly, had just been elected mayor of St. Paul. Moua wanted to get to know her state representative, Sheldon Johnson, because she thought he would run for the state Senate in a special election and she wanted to work on his campaign.
“I asked him if he was going to run and he told me he wasn’t,” Moua said. “But then he turned the tables on me and said ‘Well, what about you? I heard lots about you and I think you would do a good job.’
“In the course of that conversation he sort of inspired me to think about what that would look like. I went home and talked to my husband and we thought it would be really fun to be engaged in a special election. I ended up being a candidate and the rest of it was history.”
And made history she did. Moua said she is proud that the East Side elected her to serve in the Minnesota Senate. The same year, former Rep. Cy Thao was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives to serve the Frog Town neighborhood of St. Paul. Also serving at that time was Satveer Chaudhary, who served suburban communities of Minneapolis in both the Minnesota House of Representatives and Minnesota Senate. He was the first Asian-American legislator in Minnesota and, for a time, the highest ranking political official of South Asian descent.
“Until the three of us were elected, people thought that Asian Americans were on the east or west coast,” Moua said. “When, in a blink of an eye, we Asian Americans were elected to the Minnesota Legislature I think that sort of rocked the political world for people who track politics in this country. I think for that decade that all three of us were in office we were able to shine a light on Minnesota that there are Asian-Americans in Minnesota and not only that, that Minnesota is one of the few states that have created an opportunity for Asians to represent the people of Minnesota.”
In her bid to serve Senate Dist. 67 in the Minnesota Senate, Moua turned to her cousin, Pakou Hang, to run her campaign – or “steer the ship” as Moua phrased it. Hang said at that time, like many people, she didn’t know about the Minnesota Legislature or about House and Senate districts, but as someone who loved her cousin, and “The West Wing,” Hang said “yes.”
Little did the campaign team know that their grassroots approach to campaigning was exactly the right strategy to win. The first key was talking with people, something the team’s parents had instilled into them.
“Our parents had always taught us when you talk to people you have to be respectful, especially if you are talking to elders,” Hang said. “So we’d go up to people and say ‘hi how are you, where do you live, tell me a little bit about yourself, what are the things important to you.’
“How we engaged people was really authentic and that was refreshing for voters.”
With a primary and special election, Hang said Moua was always good about educating people about the voting process and putting into context why the election was important for them. Hang said later in her PhD program she learned if you give voters context, you increase the probability they will engage. She found it interesting that although they had no formal experience, Moua’s campaign team were engaging in those tactics.
Through grassroots tactics, Moua’s campaign team reached out to folks who, in the past, hadn’t been invited or included in the political process. Hang said they would get the water records to see who had just turned on water service and go and welcome that household to the neighborhood; talk with people at laundromats while they were washing their clothes; and they went on Hmong and Spanish speaking radio stations.
To Hang, Moua’s success in the primary and then general election reminded people “that you don’t need to be a political operative, you don’t need to have these relationships with people in power to feel that I know there is something wrong in my community and I want to do something about it” as well as the political process should be inviting and inclusive of all people.
While Mee’s core team had never been involved in politics, Hang said they had the advice and help of Roy Magnuson, Kathleen Murphy, Jim Mogen and other campaign veterans. Many, like Hang who went on to work for the Wellstone campaign, stayed involved in politics or the public sector.
“They cut their teeth in politics on Mee’s campaign,” Hang said. “She created a space where people could be involved” and introduced new operatives and voters to diversify and add new perspectives to the political process.
Hang has vivid memories of election night with a core group of about 75 volunteers waiting until they knew for sure Mee has been elected before joining the Election Night party of about 700 people. The evening was a victory not only for the Hmong community, but for all communities Moua reached out to during the campaign and brought into the political process.
Congresswoman Betty McCollum also noted Moua’s work to be inclusive and that when she spoke to a room she reached out and engaged everyone.
“She has the pride of surviving the refugee camps and the pride of being able to achieve the American dream, but she just didn’t want it for her own family and community, she wanted it for everyone,” McCollum said. “It’s something she really brings to the DFL Party, the big tent party and to quote Paul Wellstone, ‘we all do better when we all do better.’”
Moua served in the Minnesota Senate for nine years. In her last term she chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, at that time holding the highest office of any Hmong American politician.
“In the almost decade I was in office, I remain to be very proud of the different pieces of legislation that we were able to enact into law,” Moua said. “Whether it’s about protecting senior citizens in the State of Minnesota, protecting women who have been prostituted or protecting children and youth and families in the State of Minnesota I am very proud of that whole of policies were able to enact on behalf of the residents of the state of Minnesota.”
McCollum said that Congress is currently working on legislation to ensure women involved in sex trafficking are treated like victims.
“A lot of that work started early on with the work that Sandy Pappas and Mee Moua were doing in Minnesota,” McCollum said. “You never know when you drop a pebble in the water how the waves are going to ripple out and Mee’s pebble dropping here in Minnesota as a community leader, Minnesota Senate and just as a great person those ripples continue to spread out so she is well deserving of this public service award.”
After retiring from the Senate, Moua and her family moved to Washington, D.C. She currently works as the president and executive director of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).
Moua is honored and proud to receive an award named after Joan and Walter Mondale for very personal reasons.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but it was Vice President Mondale who played a critical role that resulted in the resettlement of a lot of the Southeast Asian refugees in the United States,” Moua said. “It is very fitting, it seems serendipitous that there would be such a large Southeast Asian and large Hmong-American community in Minnesota given the role that the vice president played in terms of helping to craft the resettlement policies that brought many of my relatives and my family to the United States.”
Moua also appreciates the service the couple has provided to Minnesota and the nation as a whole.
“They will always be a beacon of inspiration, the true North Star of what public service ought to look like,” she said. “The commitment and the authentic spirit of service and representation for the people of Minnesota. I will always see them as that North Star.”
Filed under: DFL News, Iron Range / Northern Minnesota Area News, Metro Area News, Southeastern Area News, Southwestern Area News, Volunteer Experiences – See more at: https://www.dfl.org/dfl-news/2015/06/moua-to-receive-joan-and-walter-mondale-award-for-public-service/#.dpuf