No one could accuse Mee Moua of lacking political courage. This spring, just weeks after the Democrat won a special election to the Minnesota Senate, she jumped feet-first into an emotional debate over whether the state ought to mandate reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. With September 11, the war against terrorism and the patriotic national mood looming in the background, she offered an amendment requiring whoever led the Pledge to remind students four times a year that those of them not taking part were not necessarily being unpatriotic.
If some of Moua's conservative colleagues were a bit taken aback, their response was mild compared to the letters she began receiving-- most of them, she notes, from outside her St. Paul district. One accused her of ingratitude to the country that "protects your sorry butt." Then there was the suggestion that she "volunteer in a Veteran's hospital in gratitude to those who rescued you and yours from the rice paddies of [Southeast] Asia."
Reading this on the floor of the Senate, Moua observed that, actually, it had been the other way around. "My uncles rescued Americans from the rice fields of Southeast Asia," she said. "I am grateful to be here, but I think that enough of my relatives have spilled their blood to build the necessary bridge for me to be here."
Mee Moua, who will turn 33 this month, is the country's first Hmong state legislator, part of a generation of Hmong refugees who came to the United States as children and have become what she calls "a privileged cohort of firsts--to graduate from high school, to graduate from college, to become professionals within our community." Hmong tribespeople in the mountains of Laos were key U.S. allies during the Vietnam War, and in the two decades following the end of the war, this country allowed in some 127,000 of them. They had been farmers in Southeast Asia, without much formal education, and in the years after they arrived, the Hmong ranked among the poorest and least adapted of the country's refugee populations.
Moua, who was born in Laos and spent three years in a refugee camp in Thailand, eventually settled with her family in public housing in Appleton, Wisconsin. "Because my parents didn't speak much English, they never got good, stable jobs," she says. But they were quite aware of the opportunities this country offered. "My mom would say, 'If we'd grown up here, your dad would be a doctor and I'd be a lawyer and by now I'd be a judge,'" Moua says. "That inspired me to believe that even if they were born in the wrong time and place, my siblings and I could do it." She followed her uncle to Brown University, went on to study public affairs at the University of Texas, then got a law degree at the University of Minnesota.
Her chance to make electoral history came after Randy Kelly, who represented St. Paul's East Side in the Senate, won last year's mayoral election in that city. Moua, who had become a political activist and advocate for Hmong concerns, joined a primary field that included Tim Mahoney, a state representative who had Kelly's backing.
Helped by changes in federal law that made it easier to register Hmong to vote, Moua and her allies launched a concerted effort both to reach beyond her Hmong base and to get Hmong to the polls. "I thought she had no chance against Mahoney," says one Democratic insider in the state. "She out-organized him."
To Moua, her election is significant in that it ratifies long-held Hmong beliefs. "Once we left China and were pushed into Laos and Vietnam and Burma and Thailand," she says, "we've always been marginalized and disenfranchised. It's always been part of our sense of nationalism that the aim is not only culturally and socially, but politically to be integrated into the mainstream culture. The feeling is there that it's inevitable."