Oakland’s Next Mayor Highlights Political Rise of Hmong Americans

Over platters of fried rice, egg rolls and crab rangoon, Sheng Thao took the microphone and asked for support in June from several dozen people gathered at a Hmong restaurant in Wisconsin.

Ms. Thao, 37, was running to become the mayor of Oakland, Calif., but she took a detour to the Upper Midwest because it has some of the nation’s largest communities of Hmong Americans.

When Ms. Thao spoke, Zongcheng Moua, 60, found himself nodding along, never mind that he lived 2,000 miles away from California. Like Ms. Thao’s parents, Mr. Moua landed in a refugee camp in Thailand after fleeing the war in Laos nearly 50 years ago. His siblings, like Ms. Thao’s parents, struggled to adapt to life in the United States after arriving with no money, formal education or language skills.

“Our Hmong community for the longest time did not have a voice,” Mr. Moua, one of the organizers of the event, said. “So regardless of where Sheng lives, her success is our success.”

In November, Ms. Thao, 37, narrowly edged out Loren Taylor, her fellow Oakland council member, by a few hundred votes thanks to support from progressive groups and labor unions, but also from a tightly knit Hmong network that contributed about one-fifth of her campaign funds.

When she is sworn into office in January, Ms. Thao will become Oakland’s first Hmong mayor and the most prominent Hmong American officeholder in the United States to date. She will lead a major city of 440,000 residents that is grappling with a rise in violent crime and homelessness but remains a vibrant counterweight to the city across the bay, San Francisco.

In St. Paul, Minn., home to one of the country’s largest concentrations of Hmong Americans, Angelina Her shops with her sister, Maleena Her, 2, for the Hmong New Year celebration.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

A portrait of General Vang Pao, a major general in the Royal Lao Army and a leader in the Hmong American community in the United States, sits inside the Hmong Village in St. Paul, Minn.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

Ms. Thao was part of a wave of Hmong Americans to triumph this year in state and local elections across the country. In Minnesota, home to the nation’s second-largest concentration of Hmong residents, a record nine Hmong candidates won their races for the State Legislature. In Wisconsin and California’s Central Valley, Hmong Americans also won local seats.

“I didn’t do this on my own — I did it with the help and support of Oaklanders and the Hmong community far and wide throughout the whole nation,” Ms. Thao said in a recent interview.

It is a remarkable feat for a small contingent that arrived in the United States about 40 years ago from Laos as refugees of the “secret war” backed by the C.I.A. against Communists there during the Vietnam War. While Hmong immigrants have come to the United States from various nations, most came as refugees from Laos during the post-Vietnam era.

After settling in the United States, Hmong immigrants as a group struggled socioeconomically. In the face of language and cultural barriers, and lacking transferable skills, many Hmong lived in low-income neighborhoods and worked in low-skilled factory jobs, like food processing and textiles manufacturing.

Hmong Americans have improved their standing over the years as some members of the first generation saved money and bought homes in the suburbs and the second generation earned degrees and entered higher-paying professions. But all told, they still fare worse than most ethnic groups on multiple measures of income: 60 percent of Hmong Americans remained low-income, and more than one in four lived in poverty, based on a 2020 report.

Representative Samantha Vang, at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, is a second-generation Hmong American who was first elected to her seat in 2018.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

“We have definitely advanced much faster than some other groups, but we’re still struggling,” said Samantha Vang, a Minnesota state representative and a second-generation Hmong American who was first elected to her seat in 2018.

A refugee camp in Thailand, near the Laos border, on April 20, 1979. There were 11,000 refugees in this camp — 90 percent of them Hmong.Credit…Eddie Adams/Associated Press
Hmong students in a class at the Lao Family Community Center inside the St. Paul Y.M.C.A. in Minnesota in 1980.Credit…Michael Kieger/Minnesota Historical Society

An ethnic minority in Laos, Hmong people were secretly recruited by the United States to help disrupt supply lines and rescue downed American pilots in the fight against Communists in Southeast Asia, an effort first confirmed by a congressional report. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, they were targeted by the Communist-run government in Laos, and many fled to refugee camps in Thailand before eventually resettling in the United States in the Twin Cities in Minnesota and Milwaukee, as well as Fresno and Sacramento in California.

Unlike the Vietnamese refugees, who came from diverse backgrounds, the Hmong people who came to the United States were mostly farmers, said Carolyn Wong, a research associate at the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Because of the clandestine nature of the conflict in Laos, few Americans knew about how Hmong people had helped the United States as allies during the war.

Undeterred, and with no homeland to go back to, Hmong refugees embraced the United States as their home. Experts suggest that because Hmong Americans generally came to the United States in the same post-Vietnam era, they have more cohesion than larger Asian American groups that attained earlier political prominence.

“Perhaps that’s been our strength — we’re hungrier for that sense of visibility,” said Mee Moua, a former Minnesota state legislator and an early political pioneer in the community.

In 1991, Choua Lee was elected to the school board in St. Paul, Minn., becoming the first Hmong to hold public office in the United States. In 2000, Hmong lobbied for a bill that helped make it easier for many former Hmong servicemen to gain citizenship. As of 2019, 81 percent of foreign-born Hmong people in the United States had become naturalized citizens, the highest rate among Asian American communities, according to the Pew Research Center.

In Minnesota, especially, the growing number of naturalized citizens and the state’s already-strong tradition of political participation created fertile ground for the emergence in the early 2000s of a young generation of Hmong American leaders like Ms. Moua and Cy Thao, a former state representative.

“In those early days, they didn’t necessarily understand what a political party was, or a party slate, so all of these things had to be learned through experience,” Ms. Wong, the research associate, said. “But very quickly those ways of running and building the support of the community became a time-tested path to success.”

Minnesota is home to the country’s second-largest concentration of Hmong. A group of friends at the Hmong Village in St. Paul.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

Roughly 300,000 Hmong Americans now live in the United States, still largely concentrated in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. California has about one-third of the nation’s Hmong residents, the most in the nation, and relatively few of them live in the San Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles. Many have remained in the Fresno and Sacramento regions where immigrants first settled, and some have moved to the far northern reaches of the state to grow marijuana.

Fewer than 1,000 live in Alameda County, where Oakland is the county seat. While Ms. Thao did not have a sizable Hmong voter base to draw from, she benefited from the nationwide Hmong clan system, which has been key to the success of some Hmong American political campaigns.

Organized around the 18 main surnames within the Hmong community, the system has been largely preserved by Hmong in the United States, and it remains an important source of identity, social support and, increasingly, political backing.

In Ms. Thao’s race for the Oakland City Council in 2018, her father, in accordance with the clan system’s patriarchal traditions, approached local Thao clan leaders to seek help.

The leaders were not familiar with Ms. Thao, said Louansee Moua, a longtime campaign consultant to Ms. Thao and other Hmong political candidates. Born and raised in Stockton, Calif., to parents who met in a refugee camp in Thailand, Ms. Thao had grown up at a relative distance from the Hmong community, in part because of her parents’ concerns that their sons might get trapped in the Hmong street gang culture that was active at the time, Ms. Thao said.

The Thaos still held tight to Hmong traditions, including the Hmong language and the practice of shamanism, which made Ms. Thao feel self-conscious in the predominantly white, working-class neighborhood where she grew up.

“I remember growing up feeling like, why can’t we just be like everyone else?” she recalled. “But it’s such a beautiful culture that, in hindsight, I wish I was raised around other Hmong people so I could be proud of who I was a lot sooner.”

A self-described “rebellious” teenager, Ms. Thao left home at age 17 and soon found herself in an abusive relationship, she said. At 20, she spent several months alternating between living in a car and couch surfing with her son, then an infant.

Later, while working a full-time administrative job, she enrolled in a community college and then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating, she started to work her way up in local politics in Oakland.

When Ms. Thao was ready to run for City Council, the clan elders swung into action, helping to mobilize a statewide network of Thaos and other Hmong residents to raise money and volunteer for her campaign, Louansee Moua said. When Ms. Thao won the race, the Thao clan threw a baci ceremony attended by more than 500 people for her in Merced, Calif., during which many in the community tied a blessing string around her wrists for good luck.

When it came to Ms. Thao’s mayoral race this year, the clan was once again eager to help out.

“There’s this strong cohesive network within the Hmong community and a sense that because she’s a Thao and we’re Thaos, of course we have to help her,” Louansee Moua explained.

To win in Oakland, Ms. Thao relied on a broad coalition of voters who supported her progressive policies, as well as endorsements and funding from major labor unions that are influential in the heavily Democratic city.

But Ms. Thao said her narrow victory simply would not have been possible without the help of her nationwide family of Hmong elders, aunties, uncles, brothers and sisters.

“This wave of Hmong electeds across the nation — they go out and they ask for support in the Hmong community,” Ms. Thao said. “Then the Hmong community shows up and they show up big time.”

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