For what was considered an “off-year” political race, with no state or federal offices, their was plenty of ‘all-politics-is-local” impact on Tuesday, with many contests brings cheers and tears. Two closely watched contests of interest to the Asian community were in St. Paul.
Kazoua Kong-Thao, the popular St. Paul School Board Vice President, won reelection among the four contested seats, along with two other incumbent board members, Ann Carroll and Tom Conlon, and one open seat went to Keith Hardy. Only Anne Carroll received more votes that Kong-Thao.
Incumbent Ward Six St. Paul City Councilman Dan Bostrom held on to defeat a strong challenge from Pakou Hang, a well-known community activist. Bostrom received 2,507 votes (54%) to Hang’s 2,142 (46%).
Another hotly contested raced involved Melvin Carter unseated First Ward City St. Paul City Councilperson Debbie Montgomery.
Kazoua Kong-Thao expressed relief that the 11-month campaign is finally finished. She has been up early and home late most times during the entire time. It was all worthwhile Tuesday night, when she said the victory was a signal of public reinforcement that the work she and the board are doing is right and good for children and families.
“I am excited an honored to be able to be elected again,” said Kong-Thao.
She thanked her fellow school board members, including Elona Street-Stewart, chair, and her campaign co-chairs, State Senator Sandy Pappas and Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega. She also thanked her family and the countless volunteers, especially with her “home-base” in the Hmong community that she does not take for granted.
“The Hmong community believes that I am a good voice and that I am representing them as well as the general community,” she added.
As the vice chair of the SPPS Board for the past three years, Kong Thao also thanks the board for their vote of confidence with each annual vote to remain at the position. She has enjoyed working with the board, staff and community.
Kong Thao says that the community is central to her function and that as long as she approaches her work with the understanding that she serves them, then she will perform her job in accordance to their needs.
She said this is important when considering school referendums during times of high property taxes. Just last year the board hired a new superintendent, and won a community referendum for a $16.5 million to replace expiring funding for the SPPS Comprehensive Improvement Plan, ELL, Special Education, All-Day Kindergarten, Early Childhood Family Education, and 4-year-old Kindergarten. It also funds a program to prepare students for postsecondary school, particularly in math and science, and for technology upgrades.
She said the schools have to believe that the community is willing to support the future of their children and believe the administration and teachers are doing the right things with the budget.
“It showed that they believe in the schools, the leaderships and what we are doing,” said Kong-Thao. “It was a vote of confidence from public that we are doing a great job.”
Kong-Thao will work on her priorities of eliminating the achievement gaps among students, to include increasing the number of minority students in the gifted and talented programs to create more inviting and diverse learning environments. She spent the remainder of the evening speaking with guests one-on-one, taking photos and talking about her passion for children and education. Supporters praised her abilities as a grass-roots style leader and visionary who can bring together leaders, parents and children.
“I also want to continue to work on building a coalition of support for quality, stable public education,” she added, noting that this is getting parents to hear and understand the message and about utilizing resources and talents the in public school system to produce top notch graduates that will build a strong community.
Kong-Thao and spouse Chang Michael Thao have been married for 18 years and together have four children who are current students of the St. Paul Public schools. She came to the U.S. as a refugee child and lived in Minnesota and California. She credits education for the opportunities that she now has and wants to return that leadership to the school system.
Kong Thao was pleased that Keith Hardy won a spot on the board. She said that he knows what it takes to support and nurture today’s youth and is a great role-model. Hardy is concerned that the declining number of students who attend public schools in the district is a drain on resources. He is also concerned about non-enrolled students in the district from communities of color and lower socioeconomic environments. He wants to encourage families to feel comfortable about returning to the public schools.
“Keith is knowledgeable of the school district and the learning curve will not be as steep, as he has already worked on the Citizens Budget and Finance Advisory Committee in the past five-years,” she said. “He understands the basics of funding schools and is involved in community events. He presents a fresh perspective and is passionate about the board and the schools.”
Hardy, a University of Texas-Arlington graduate who worked for Burlington Northern Railroad and transferred to St. Paul in 1988, is an advocate of professional development training for teachers, and of eliminating the achievement gap in standardized test scores.
Candidates that fell short of winning a seat were Kevin Riach, who came in fifth followed by David Peterson, Jeanette Gudgel and Bernard Ruppert.
Guests at Pakou Hang’s election night party listened as reports of her winning 4 of the first 5 wards came in to thunderous applause. There were not any more reports after that, and until Hang appeared to speak, many believed that she had won the election.
If anything, that helped the campaign team get the message across that the community did in fact win with a strong showing that helped to ensure sure that the issues and voices of Pakou’s supporters were heard. Even after the somber news that she had lost the election, the heads remained held high and proud the rest of the evening.
“This is about the politics of hope,” said Hang, who said the journey of grass roots civic action does not end until “we can make hope, truth.”
Pakou was upbeat and congratulated Bostrom for running a tough race, and thanked him for engaging in dialogue on how to make a democracy stronger.
Sen. Moua was present and thanked volunteers for making over 17,000 phone calls from the start of the campaign, including 1,300 on election day alone.
“(Pakou) gave her all, and now she and we are truly the winners,” said Moua. “This is a journey that has just begun.”
Accolades aside, Pakou said that no one wins an election on their own, and thanked everyone from her parents who hosted and fed the volunteers. There were many teary-eyed supporters, from youth to elderly, Hmong and non-Hmong that filled the Polish Club with enough cheer that most believed Pakou did win until she conceded to Bostrom in her speech.
The tears were plenty and painful, however, they pledged the grass roots campaign to consolidate the disenfranchised would continue.
Jan Murphy, a Pakou Hang supporter and a long-time friend, said Hang was able to mobilize the community and expects that she will continue her work on the issues and as a candidate in the future.
Roy Magnuson, a Social Studies teacher at Como Park High School, and longtime friend of the Hmong community, said that this race was not about being against either candidate, but was rather about a difference of visions and the various labor and civic endorsements weighed in heavily on both sides.
For this reason, he felt the high emotions of the campaigns were able to bring out more than double the number of voters than previous elections where incumbent Councilmember Bostrom ran without an opponent.
“Dan Bostrom is an east side icon,” said Magnuson, noting that he ran unopposed in two prior elections. “He is a good man who has done good things.”
Pakou succeeded, Magnuson added, with ensuring that the disenfranchised vote that nearly carried Pakou over the top, now has a louder and consolidated voice, and Bostrom knows that he has to address the changing needs of a growing, diverse tapestry of east side residents.
Hang is a celebrated activist and campaign manager who ran on issues of regular people, with a focus on education, public safety and economic development. She gained campaign experience and knowledge after organizing the successful State Senate campaign for Mee Moua in 2002, helping her become the first Hmong state legislator in the United States. She later worked for Progressive Minnesota and as deputy political director on the re-election campaign that was tragically cut short for the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone. She was also a field director for the Minnesota chapter of America Votes.
A child-refugee who went on to graduate from Yale University in 1999, Hang is now on leave from a doctoral program in Political Science at the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute.
Xai Thao, a budding young comedian, said he was inspired by working on this, his first campaign. He made many phone calls on behalf of Take Action and ACORN. He said being part of the process made him “excited to do more.”
Hashi Shafi, volunteer, said the winners and losers were what the election-night parties were about, but he was very pleased to see immigrant and minority communities having a real impact on the process.
“I am so happy to part of the electoral process,” said Hashi. “This is a process…when people participate, then it works for us, and the larger community will see us.”