Diversity In Action: The First Hmong Senator

State Legislatures Magazine: July/August 2002
By Christoper Conte

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the July/August 20002issue of NCSL's magazine, State Legislatures. To  subscribe contact the marketing department at (303) 364-7700. 

By Christopher Conte

In this Article

In her first decade of life, Mee Moua experienced a transformation about as profound as anybody could undergo. Born in Laos and raised for several years in a refugee camp in Thailand, she spent her early years steeped in the stories and traditions of her native Hmong culture. But then her family moved to the United States, eventually settling in Appleton, Wis. Almost overnight, she found herself attending American schools, joining the Girl Scouts, participating in a debate club, playing basketball and singing in the choir at a Catholic church. Like most immigrant children, she learned English and American ways faster than her parents did-and thus became a vital link between her family and mainstream American institutions.

It turned out to be good training for her new job: This January, Moua was elected to the Minnesota Senate, the first Hmong to achieve so high a political office in her adopted country. Far from impairing Moua's ability to manage the complexities of lawmaking, it seems a life astride two cultures has given the 33-year-old lawmaker a rare ability to see different sides of an issue and find common ground among divergent viewpoints. "I have been interpreting for my family and community since I was in the fifth grade," she notes. "My experience taught me to serve as a bridge and a service provider."

Moua is one of nearly 100 state lawmakers who were born outside the United States. Many came from Europe, Canada and Central America, while others hail from countries as diverse as Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Thailand and Korea. "Despite all our warts," says Twyla Ring, Moua's colleague in the Minnesota Senate, "we are still the land of opportunity."

A first generation American and comrade of Moua, Senator Satveer Chaudhary agrees: "The perspective we bring to the Legislature is creating opportunities for everyone to achieve the American dream. Education is a linchpin. All Americans have the same opportunity to achieve what we want in life if we work hard enough."

Understanding Differences

But immigrant lawmakers tell a more complex story as well-that assimilation is not a smooth process, and that melding the American "pluribus" into "unum" requires leaders who can understand and embrace differences among constituents while helping diverse groups see what they have in common.

In few places is that challenge greater than Moua's own district, which encompasses the ethnically diverse East Side of St. Paul. A textbook example of American immigration, the East Side has attracted successive waves of immigration for more than a century. First came the Swedes, Irish, Germans and Italians. The Hmong are relative newcomers, arriving since 1970. As in much of the Midwest, the local Latino population is steadily growing. And most recently, the East Side has become home to a Somali community.

Moua, who defeated four opponents in the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) primary and then won a four-way general election campaign with 51 percent of the vote, needed support from more than the Hmong community to reach the Senate. The Hmong account for only 10,000 of the district's 72,000 residents, and some Hmong leaders initially opposed her candidacy. To win, she had to build a broad-based coalition that cut across the district's diverse neighborhoods.

She began by establishing her credibility with the East Side's political establishment. Her educational background helped: She earned an undergraduate degree from Brown University in 1992, a master's in public policy from the University of Texas in 1994 and a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1997. Also a help was her work at Leonard, Street and Deinard, a prominent Minneapolis law firm, where she represented employers on immigration issues, advised small businesses and worked on municipal finance and tax issues. Her personal qualities were equally important. "She's one of those people you can disagree with, and it's no problem," says Kathy Lantry, a member of the St. Paul City Council, who first met Moua when the up-and-coming lawyer was lobbying on behalf of a billboard company that opposed sign restrictions. Even though they were on opposing sides, the two immediately became fast friends and political allies.

All this gave Moua a foundation on which to build a successful campaign. "Her activities positioned her to be a very viable candidate within the mainstream community," says Roy Magnuson, a community activist. The proof came at a special DFL convention late last year. With Randy Kelly, who gave up the Senate seat when he was elected mayor of St. Paul, backing Representative Tim Mahoney, Moua faced a real danger of being eliminated from the race before ever reaching voters. But she managed to persuade the DFL to refrain from endorsing any candidate.

She then overwhelmed her opponents with one of the most formidable political organizations the East Side has ever seen. Her network of family and friends helped rally the Hmong community. But she proved just as effective in reaching out to other groups; volunteers visited every household in the district twice during the campaign.

The candidate herself stressed issues that affect her entire district, not just particular groups. She favors helping the long-suffering Minnesota Twins build a new stadium-an idea that isn't very popular in much of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but that has strong backing in the mostly blue-collar East Side. She also is heavily involved in economic development and housing issues, emphasizing her experience in municipal finance and small business.

And like most politicians, she voices unabashed patriotism; during the DFL convention, for instance, her supporters-all dressed in red, white and blue-chanted "USA, USA" to cheer her on. "It was incredibly emotional," recalls Lantry.
Like many immigrant lawmakers, Moua and Chaudhary "bring a sense of public good to the Legislature; a desire to give something back for what this country has given us," Chaudhary notes.

Now that she is in the Senate, Moua is determined to continue bridging diverse groups, rather than being defined exclusively as the nation's first Hmong legislator. That may mean disappointing both Hmong leaders nationwide and some allies in the Senate who look to her to be the voice of her ethnic group. "She is going to be pulled in different directions," notes Majority Leader Roger Moe. "She has to be careful not to get stretched out and have energy taken away from her efforts as a state senator."

Moua, although proud of her heritage, insists on being viewed as an individual. "I am willing to be a cultural ambassador, but I can't be the Legislature's sole connection to the Hmong community," she says. "I don't have ownership or control over them." As for her role in the Senate, she asserts: "I want to be at the table when I can add to the discussion because of my experiences or background. But I don't want to be pigeon-holed." She notes with pride, for instance, that she is a member of the Senate Tax, Crime Prevention, Education and Transportation committees, and emphasizes her involvement in issues that affect the entire East Side-including a major redevelopment project and a proposed new library in the district.

Senator Jane Ranum, who heads the Crime Prevention Committee, credits Moua with making an important contribution during deliberations on an anti-terrorism bill. The freshman senator warned that a provision in the bill that would color code driver's licenses to show people's immigration status would lead to unfair discrimination. She argued the issue not just from an immigrant's point of view, but also from the business perspective, showing how employers would suffer if immigrant workers are harassed or driven away. "She's a lawyer, an employment lawyer, and she brought the business community into the discussion," Ranum notes. "I see a person trying to make a difference for all people."

The same motivation has led Moua to become a strong advocate for her district's Somali immigrants--and an unusually sensitive one. Although some DFL officials are eager to enlist the Somalis in political activities, Moua says they should be given more time to settle. And she warns that service agencies and other institutions should gear up to help the Somalis with challenges they almost inevitably will face.

One likely problem, she predicts, may be the emergence of street gangs. St. Paul's Hmong community suffered its own travails with teen gangs during the 1980s and early 1990s. In her master's thesis, Moua explained that Hmong parents had no concept of adolescence. In Hmong culture, children went instantly from being completely dependent and obedient to being fully responsible adults, with no extended interim period. When Hmong parents found themselves in a culture where teenagers remain dependent far longer but become less and less obedient, they tried to crack down. But that only drove children into the clutches of gangs.

"Every immigrant community has gangs," Moua says. "So we have to be vigilant, to make sure adults are learning the things they need to, and make sure they have the buffering institutions and social service organizations to deal with the whole range of social issues that arise when children are fully integrated, but parents aren't."

Whether discussing gangs or other issues, Moua's experiences are relevant to her work, but her effectiveness arises from her personal qualities-especially her ability to span different groups. "It's important to keep in mind that she's a strong person," says Senator Steve Kelley. "She works extremely hard and is very focused. She's good at her job because of her talent, not status."

Pledge of Allegiance

Moua's personal qualities and experience all were on display when the Senate became embroiled in an emotional debate over legislation mandating the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Perhaps remembering her own family members, who fought with Americans during the Vietnam War, she initially voted for the bill in committee. But then she heard from Moslem constituents who said making a pledge would violate their religious beliefs. Complaints by civil libertarians, who objected to mandated speech, also may have a struck a chord (the word "hmong," after all, means "free"). And she doubtless knew from her own experiences as an immigrant that Americans sometimes unfairly question the patriotism of people who differ from them.

So she offered a floor amendment. Teachers still would be expected to lead their students in taking the pledge each day, but they also would have to explain that classmates can refrain for religious or philosophical reasons and still be just as patriotic as their peers.

The proposal was not instantly popular. But Moua drove home her point that safeguards were needed to keep the pledge from becoming a wedge issue by reading on the Senate floor some letters she had received after suggesting her amendment. "You are a product of affirmative action agendas," said one. "You have been here long enough to get elected, but not long enough to realize what America stands for," said another. And a third made Moua's case for her: "Do I believe those who refuse to pledge are less loyal than those who want to?" it asked. "Yes, I absolutely believe that."
The compromise-and other letters vilifying an esteemed colleague-changed the whole tenor of the debate. It also moved many colleagues. In one deft maneuver, she had managed to endorse both the Pledge of Allegiance and the First Amendment--and to give her colleagues a memorable civics lesson, as well. The American Legion was impressed too: It asked to work with Moua on new language. She readily agreed, and the resulting language cleared the Senate on a 60-7 vote.

Preserving Traditions

Although Moua's political successes mark a significant advance for the Hmong toward fuller participation in American life, it would be a mistake to assume that their assimilation is complete--or necessarily ever should be. In fact, despite entering the mainstream, Moua is eager to help the Hmong preserve some of the best aspects of their traditional culture. She would like, for instance, to bolster the Hmong's strong tradition of extended families. In the past, the presence of several generations of Hmong under the same roof has helped limit problems like divorce and domestic abuse. But with more and more Hmong living in nuclear families, these ills are on the rise. Moua tries to counter these trends by inviting relatives to participate in divorce discussions, and urging the Hmong community to remember their traditional family loyalties. That makes good sense, she says, regardless of one's ethnic background. "We need to reclaim family members," she says. "We need to do what all good American families do-institute the Sunday dinner at Mom and Dad's house, and not be so busy."

Still, that's a tough order. The Hmong community is complex and changing. Indeed, even Moua sometimes gets caught in the cultural crossfire. In one of her early steps as a legislator, for instance, she introduced a bill that would give Hmong leaders the legal authority to marry people. The idea seemed uncontroversial. Christian and Moslem religious leaders already have such authority. Moreover, Moua saw the bill as a way to preserve a rich part of Hmong culture. During traditional Hmong wedding ceremonies, which last three days and three nights, facilitators sing as much as 20 hours of songs-all of which are passed down orally. By giving the facilitators legal recognition, Moua hoped, more young people would be encouraged to undertake the difficult apprenticeship, thereby keeping this rich heritage alive.

Her bill never came to a vote, however. The reason may seem surprising: The legislation stirred a heated controversy, not among mainstream society, but in the Hmong community itself. It seems many young Hmong women, noting that wedding facilitators generally have been men, feared the bill would bolster the Hmong's traditional, patriarchal social system. Moua, who is by any definition a liberated American woman-she splits household and child care duties 50-50 with her husband, who runs a real estate business-says women could become wedding facilitators themselves. But she couldn't convince her constituents that the role of wedding facilitator should be enhanced. Under fire, she was forced to withdraw the bill.

"It's now back in the community's court," says Moua, who has many other priorities-including getting re-elected this year. "The community will have to decide what it wants to do."

Christopher Conte, a free-lance writer from Silver Spring, Md., frequently writes about immigration and other social issues.

©2002, National Conference of State Legislatures. All rights reserved.