Regardless of who wins, the next Ramsey County Commissioner representing the East Side of St. Paul will be a Hmong woman.
And the winner will be Minnesota’s first elected Hmong county commissioner, according to the Minnesota Counties Association.
Mai Chong Xiong, 33, is a longtime legislative aide to the St. Paul City Council. Ying Vang-Pao, 56, works as a financial consultant. Both are vying to replace Jim McDonough, who held the seat representing the East Side for 22 years.
Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, is happy to see the historic race. “That’s democracy,” he said.
The Greater East Side of St. Paul is an increasingly young, diverse, low-income neighborhood. More than 60% of its inhabitants are people of color; Asians, who make up 35% of the neighborhood’s residents, are the largest demographic group.
Mai Chong Xiong and Ying Vang-Pao hope to bring to the county council their personal experience of navigating county services for their families. Both hope to prioritize affordable housing. But they would bring different approaches to the role.
The two candidates appeal to different generations of voters, said Xiong of the Center for Hmong Studies. Mai Chong Xiong, whom he called “a rising figure in the community”, is active in progressive politics and a favorite with young voters, he said. It also carries the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labour Party.
Ying Vang-Pao is more popular with older and Republican voters, he said. Although newer to Minnesota and lesser known in the community, she shares a name with her father, the legendary General Vang Pao. Pao led the CIA-funded “Secret War” in Laos, then guided many Hmong people to life outside Southeast Asia when the Vietnam War ended. Some have called him the “George Washington of the Hmong”.
The outcome of the election will depend on the candidates’ ability to reach out to voters and organize themselves, Lee Pao Xiong said.
“May the best person win,” he said.
“Organization is what it takes to really make incremental change”
From the age of 12, Mai Chong Xiong called social workers for her parents to ensure they could maintain county benefits such as cash assistance, food assistance and health care. . Xiong’s family faced housing instability throughout her childhood. At some point, they had to move in with another family – a total of 18 people lived in a three-bedroom house.
“It’s traumatic to the point where we still remember who our social worker is and the types of letters we received,” she said.
After college, Xiong became involved with the organizing and advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, working on successful campaigns to defeat constitutional amendments that would have required photo ID to vote and outlawed same-sex marriage. . She also helped campaigns to pass a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave locally, she said.
“Organize with people inside and outside [of government] that’s what it takes to really make incremental change,” Xiong said. “If we bring that kind of energy to the county council, we’ll get a lot more involvement and engagement to really drive policy.”
If she wins, she hopes to improve access to affordable housing. The East Side, she said, is “one of the last affordable places to live,” and many low-income homeowners live there, she noted.
Xiong wants the county to provide grants and loans for repairs and maintenance “to have safe and dignified housing.”
She would also like to see more housing built. And she would work to ensure that the new housing development at the former Hillcrest Golf Course is accessible to low-income people.
“I want to make sure the county is an important partner in this,” she said.
“Things change from top to bottom”
Ying Vang-Pao also faced challenges navigating social services for her family members. Her 25-year-old daughter is blind and relies on Metro Mobility for transportation. It sometimes took her three hours to get home from school, Vang-Pao said. When Vang-Pao’s mother had cancer, it took over a month for their county in California to approve the surgery she needed. Because of this delay, her mother died, Vang-Pao said.
“I understand the complexity and difficulty of navigating county services,” she said.
As county commissioner, Vang-Pao said, she would work to diversify the staff at the executive level. “Things change from top to bottom,” she said. “So if we have leadership that reflects the community, they have a better understanding of the programs or things that the community needs.”
Vang-Pao would also focus on public safety and tout Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher as well as former St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney.
“We need to put programs back in place to help these young people move in the right direction and have a better life because it affects our crime rate,” she said.
If elected, Vang-Pao said she would work to revive a similar program at Totem Town, a residential treatment center for high-risk youth that closed in 2019. A Star Tribune investigation found that the closure of juvenile detention centers like Totem Town, the state and counties have failed to provide alternatives to rehabilitate troubled youth.
“That’s what these kids need instead of just throwing them in jail and then sending them back where they came from,” she said. “Some of these children come from very dysfunctional or very harsh atmospheres at home.”
Hmong candidates on the ballot, Hmong performers at the polls
The growth of the Hmong population in Ramsey County will be reflected in another way at the ballot box. This year, for the first time, the county is required to train and provide Hmong interpreter election judges at the polls under federal suffrage law. Indeed, the 2020 census showed that Hmong residents make up more than 5% of the county’s voting-age population.
Early voting is underway and will continue until November 7. You can also vote at your polling station on Election Day: Tuesday, November 8.