Tou Xiong describes running for office as almost a natural stage of life. “We got done with college and law school,” he says, “and now we’re in that prime time to run for office.”
Xiong was part of a group of four legislators of Hmong descent elected to the Minnesota House last November, tripling the overall number to six. The House grew more diverse in general, with record numbers of Hispanic, Asian and black legislators, including representatives from Minnesota’s Somali community.
It’s a time-honored tradition that immigrant groups, once they form a big enough population in a city or state, come to flex their political muscles, from the Irish and Italians of the Northeast to Hispanics in the Southwest. For the Hmong people, who came to Minnesota from Southeast Asia as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, the clout to form a legislative caucus is something they could barely dream about 15 or 20 years ago. “This reflects the maturing of political consciousness in the Hmong population,” says David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St. Paul. “They’ve gone from being civically involved to now being politically involved. They’ve developed some economic wherewithal, a sufficient stake in the community and a nucleus of voters.”
Older generations of Hmong had to attend to “survival needs,” serving community members almost on a one-to-one basis, says KaYing Yang, program director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders in St. Paul. Beyond social services, the rising generation of Hmong adults recognizes the need to make policy change as well, she says. “They understand the political system better than the first generation.”
There are more than 60,000 Hmong residents in Minnesota, nearly all of them in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. But candidates including Xiong sought to appeal to broader groups of voters by campaigning on health care and education. “These candidates did not run as single-issue candidates on a Hmong platform,” says Schultz. Still, Hmong legislators are expected to seek ways of addressing the educational and economic disparities that hold back many members of their community. The portrayal of Asians as the “model minority” has kept some lawmakers from recognizing the struggles among the Hmong.
But there’s no doubt that the arrival of so many Hmong legislators at the Capitol last month offered a moment of pride -- even a sense of “validation,” Xiong says, that their parents and grandparents had done the right thing in uprooting their lives and coming to this country.