Interview with Kazoua Kong-Thao, candidate for Saint Paul City Council, Ward 1

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Hmong Pages: There has been some controversy about having two Hmong candidates in the race. It seems that other communities do not have the same controversy. What do you think is the reason for that difference?

Kazoua Kong-Thao: I think it has to do with the fact that we are a small community and that our community is very close-knit. Everybody knows everybody, so relationships are very important to us and I think that we try to always create harmony or unity. In a case such as this, when two members of the community have an opportunity, in this case two members of the same clan, we don’t want to show favoritism or split our families. I think that is at the core of the controversy. I think it is also that in the recent past we had cases where we had more than one Hmong candidate and we did not win. …The thing that is hurtful has been that some have suggested that a woman cannot be a leader. … As someone who has been a leader in the community and on the St. Paul School Board, I think that does not reflect well on the people who think that way.

Hmong Pages: The DFL Ward 1 Convention did not endorse either one of you and left the decision to the voters. You have publicly claimed that you were the winner at the convention, yet despite the best showing, you did not win the party endorsement. Some people say you had to win to have a chance. What do you say to that?

Kazoua Kong-Thao: The first question that was ask at the convention was: “Would you abide by the endorsement process?” I made it very clear that if the party did endorse someone else, I would not run. I have been very active in the DFL for more than a decade, I value the process, but there was no endorsement at the convention. As far as ranking, it does not really matter if there is no endorsement. … I also think that this was such a special election, because nobody really had a chance to rally their usual constituents, so I think the outcome was fair for the other candidates as well.

Hmong Pages: Regardless of the controversy, most mainstream voters are more interested in what motivates you to enter this race. In a few sentences, can you tell them why you are running?

Kazoua Kong-Thao: I am running because I believe that I have the personal and professional experience to make me the best candidate for Ward 1. I moved into this ward as a child in 1978, and I have seen how it has changed over the years. I have the skills that will allow me to make the changes that are needed to make Ward 1 a better place for families. As a member and Chair of the St. Paul School Board, I managed over $600 million and more than 6000 employees, I am prepared to get to work for the families of Ward 1 from day one, making sure that we get the resources that we need. I think that I have a track record of working well around the issue of diversity, and I believe that whoever wants to do this work needs to be able to work with all members of a very diverse ward.

Hmong Pages: What do you see as the most pressing issues facing Ward 1? How do you plan on tackling them when elected?

Kazoua Kong-Thao: Access to quality education will be one of my main areas of focus. As someone who comes out of the education field, but also has experience in the private sector and the human services arena, I understand that education is fundamental to success. Unfortunately, our population doesn’t always have the connections or knowledge of the services available to them. I have been a bridge-builder throughout my career, and I think I can help make these connections for the people of Ward 1. We have a lot of economic opportunities that are provided by the Green Line, but these opportunities require education and training. … Education is like a platform to build a community on. It allows people to get better jobs, build a home and raise children. I want to make sure that we have the resources in Ward 1 that will allow us to provide this foundation to our families.

Other areas are areas of public safety. What I mean by that is, what is the response time for emergency services, what does the city do about drug dealers, what is done about vacant houses? I think all of these areas are public safety, but they are also affecting the quality of life and the feeling of community. We want to be a place where families feel safe and welcome. My plan is to work with the city and the police to increase cultural competency, because we need to have this mutual understanding and trust to be successful. I think in the past, this has not always been the case. … I have worked with different law enforcement agencies to educate them to be more pro-active and not only come out to tackle the bad guys, but also to get to know the different communities that live in our ward.

Hmong Pages: What do you bring to the table that makes you qualified to represent the people in Ward 1?

Kazoua Kong-Thao: The 2010 Census has shown that Ward 1 is getting even more diverse than it has been. We have Hmong, Vietnamese, Hispanics; a number of new refugee communities from East Africa who have moved in most recently. As someone who came here as a refugee child, I believe that I am someone like you, I understand what it means to come to a new country. …We also have the old Rondo neighborhood, which I can relate to through my work in education, but also as someone who had two businesses in the area.

AS someone who has been in public service, but who also has business and non-profit experience, I understand the different types of services and the different level of services that are needed to help Ward 1. City Council is not about saving the world, it is about policy, little things that can really help families like: Where can you park your car in a snow emergency, how to fix the lighting, make sure you have safe construction. It is about helping the people of Ward 1. And it is about how to resolve, as a community, the issues that we face.

Hmong Pages: Ward 1 has probably one of the most diverse populations in the city. How does that impact your campaign?

Kazoua Kong-Thao: I think that it is all about the relationships that you build. My campaign manager is African American. He is a business man and we have known each other for a long time. He is supporting me because he believes that I am the best person for this position. My communications director has long roots in the Rondo community, and she told me that for her this is not about what ethnicity you are, but what you can do for the community. I think reaching out is really important in this community, because – I want to be perfectly honest – there is fraction within the community. We have new refugee, old refugees, the Rondo community, and many long-time white residents. I am not saying we should ignore our differences, but we need to come together to work on what we can achieve together.