Minnesota State Representative Cy Thao (DFL-65A) announced last Friday that he does not intend to seek a fifth term – prompting colleagues and supporters to draw attention to the work of Thao during his eight years of service to the district and the state.With the election of State Sen. Mee Moua and State Rep. Cy Thao in 2002, the Hmong-Americans had now entered public service as elected legislators for the first time in the United States. It was just a few years after the election of Neal Thao to the Saint Paul Public School Board, and since then Kazoua Kong-Thao has won three terms and serves as president, and Vallay Varro won a seat in the most recent School Board election.
Cy Thao won the open seat vacated by Andy Dawkins with 79.5 percent of the vote over Gary Wayne DeYoung in 2002. The landslide helped to put behind a bitter DFL primary and endorsement process.
It was in 2002 that Keith Ellison was elected for the first time as the District 58B State Representative.
In his first term, Thao earned a reputation for taking on controversial and sometimes unpopular issues of his constituents. He won reelection in 2004 with 76 percent of the ballot over Republican challenger Paul Holmgren. He called his resounding victory a vote of confidence that he had the interests of his community at heart.
Community leaders point to Cy Thao as well as Mee Moua as solid and accessible leaders that through their achievements have set an example, in effect removing glass ceilings and walls that others thought impossible in the first and second generation of the refugee community.
“Cy Thao’s legislative career is that of a trailblazer – among the very first Hmong American state legislators anywhere in the country,” said Bob Spaulding, Chair of the Senate District 65 DFL Party. “Cy’s election, combined with Senator Moua’s election earlier in the same year, marked a milestone in the evolution in the political engagement of the Hmong community statewide and nationally.”
In his first term Thao said that representing the people was one thing and that learning the legislative protocol and working with other representatives in supporting their legislation to gain support on his own was a difficult learning process.
He would stand out in his fight for University Avenue businesses by leading the effort to add additional light rail stops at Hamline, Dale and Western Avenues. He coauthored legislation with Sen. Moua to get needed bonding funds for the proposed Asian Pacific Cultural Center and the Hmong Veterans Memorial.
Some of Thao’s more controversial work looked at the idea of a more proportional board membership composition on the State Council of Asian Pacific Minnesotans. In successive legislations he opposed the Hmong marriage solemnization bill – after he determined the bill’s language negatively impacted Hmong culture by enacting marriage recording requirements on the meej koob.
“Rep. Thao’s dedication at the legislature has shaped key legislation,” he added. “Most recently during last session, Cy found success making dental care more accessible to low – and moderate-income communities across the state – something of keen significance to the daily lives and health of many of his constituents.”
Spaulding said that Thao has helped shine a light on issues unique to the Hmong community, noting his steadfast commitment to draw attention to the state of Hmong in Laos, and also to shed light on the desecration of Hmong grave sites in Thailand.
“Whoever succeeds Cy as the Representative in 65A must know that the Hmong-American community has become a much more potent and engaged part of the political environment in state and local policymaking,” he said. “That’s an incredibly welcome advance. Cy may be leaving the seat, but the seeds he planted will continue to evolve in new and unexpected ways – a key part of his legacy there.”
Aside from his legislative career, Rep. Thao also has had a prolific artistic career. His work has been recognized by several prominent venues for artists and his paintings have been part of exhibitions in many venues including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Prior to serving in the Legislature Thao was the director of the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, acted and directed local plays, and worked as an art teacher in the Minneapolis Public School system. He also served on the board of directors of both the Women’s Association of Hmong And Lao, and the Hmong Development Corporation.
Thao is a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Morris, with a BA in Political Science and Studio Art. He also has an Alternative Teaching Licensure from the University of St. Thomas.
Plans will be announced at a later date for a more formal celebration of Cy Thao’s contributions to his district and the state legislature.
At least four individuals are seeking the DFL endorsement for Rep, Thao’s seat – former assistant to the Superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools Jeremiah Ellis; former local newspaper publisher Tony Schmitz; Robin Vue Benson, a Legal Affairs Manager with the Department of Human Services; and Jessica Webster, an Advocate with Legal Aid.
Consideration for endorsement is expected to take place at the Senate District’s convention on March 6th. A candidate forum is being planned for February 27th, to be moderated by former St. Paul State Representative Ray Faricy. For more information, visit www.sd65dfl.org.