The earth shook in January 2002 when Mee Moua won a special election to win the East St. Paul District 67 State Senate seat, joining State Sen. Satveer Chaudhary as the second Asian American, and becoming the first Hmong American to serve in the country to serve in any state legislature.
In an instant the Hmong refugee community had a permanent sense of belonging – and it did not take much longer to realize that this was no ordinary senator. Moua is credited with embracing constituents of all walks of life and including causes that she identified with having shared the same life experience.
In a span of one decade and two more regular elections, Moua has addressed cultural barriers in the state legislature and championed causes in crime and punishment, health and social, domestic abuse, civil rights, She has also been called upon to offer her knowledge and stature to international issues involving the Hmong refugees in Thailand.
Needless to say her announcement last summer that she would not run again made people wonder if someone of her compassion and capacity would come this way again.
Moua was a successful practicing attorney when she won a special election in January 2002 to win the seat vacated by Randy Kelly. Mou said insiders had others in mind for the senate seat, and was encouraged not to run – but succeeded in blocking the party endorsement and outpacing the field of four candidates running for the open seat in the special election.
Less than a year later in November 2002, Moua increased her 51 percent victory margin from the previous January with a 60 percent re-election bid. In the 2006 election Moua won 69 percent of the vote.
Moua said her journey was an internal and not an external driven imputes. Being Hmong was part of the piece but the total piece had to do with a platform of issues that matter to me, and in the process hopefully be a bridge builder different constituencies.
“I am not a good judge of what this has meant to the Hmong community,” she said. “It’s a unique position to be in.”
She was a young .5 generation immigrant who had the skills and the vision to “put herself our there” and do the job and make a difference.
“To make a difference for the people that I represent, not just the Hmong American community, but the totality of the people that I represent of which the Hmong American constituency is one.”
Moua describes her community as straight-talking, diverse, proud, hardworking and marginally vulnerable “paycheck to paycheck families”, retired seniors and many other subgroups with unique aspects. She was raised in a hardworking family that still needed to rely on food shelves, food stamps and public assistance.
“That is the community I come from and when I thought about running for this seat it was with that in mind,” she said.
It still pleased her, however, that her ethnicity meant the election would be an historical and brought an additional reward for the Hmong American community.
Moua said she is stepping down on the same terms – an internally drive impetus that allows her to become the number one asset for her family.
“When I made that decision it all became very clear to me that at least for the next ten years my children have to be my priority,” she said. “It doesn’t help me to continue to be a very effective advocate for resources for other people children if I’m depriving my children of their number one resource in their lives.”
The work will always be there and she said the energy and willpower is still there and would have looked forward to new committee assignments.
“Just because I am no longer in public life public officer doesn’t meant that I don’t continue to have that same commitment to those issues that care deeply about,” she said.
Moua said she is simply a student of the law – and that her approach to any attempt to use the government to regulate is to look at what is meant to serve for the public good and balance that against unnecessary intrusion of any group.
“I have always been a little bit nervous about communities who want to subject themselves to other state scrutiny,” she said.
Moua said the definitions of liberty call for the state to stay out of religion and culture and if when it scrutinizes it could e interpreted as selective discrimination of one particular group.
“So when I think about the evenhandedness of state regulation, I think about it from that perspective,” she added.
One of the early issues was with the Hmong marriage solemnization bill. It would have added the Hmong Meej Koob (mey-kung), essentially the cultural practice of family marriage negotiators to have the same solemnization rights as other religious clergy in signing off on state marriage certificates.
Moua said more than credentialing as clergy or specific cultural designees to the state, the Meej Koob would have had additional requirements as mandatory reporters and faced misdemeanor provisions for failing to certify marriages that were already illegal under state law.
Moua said this was a unique situation that while most individualized groups don’t want greater state scrutiny of its practices, some Hmong were advocating for cultural legitimacy to be recognized of its cultural and religious practices.
“So what I’ve always said to them is that I am nervous about going forward because as soon as you invite state regulation then you lose control a little bit of what they regulate and how they regulate,” said Moua.
Once the committee process started Moua said the different groups testified and the senators wanted to treat the Meej Koob differently than other individuals who officiate marriages and are not required to be become mandatory reporters.
“That is not fair, equal protection or access,” she said. “What its doing is putting them in a different class of their own with a burden that is greater than what is imposed on these other sets of people.
Moua said that people often want result but are not always aware of the unintended consequences. She said that is the role of a state senator – to deliver results but also to think through and protect constituents from themselves in terms of unintended consequences.
One of Moua’s very first challenges in 2002 was to debate the issue of the driver’s licenses. The Department of Motor Vehicles had issues a policy about full-face license photos not containing headgear.
When enforced the rule would create an unnecessary intrusion into the religious values of Muslim women and Sikh men, most of whom both wear head coverings every minute they are out in the community.
“It became such a heated political issue that the commissioner established in rules that says in particular cases where for religious purposes the persons may retain their headgear,” said Moua. “My rationale with that is that is if you are wearing that headdress everyday, all day, the entire days of your life, then I want your driver’s license photo to look like you on an everyday basis.”
The issue this year is with the enhanced drivers license law that was passed to allow the State of Minnesota to enter into an agreement with the federal government. For a fee, people living in the borderland region or who drive but not fly regularly across the border may use their enhanced driver’s license as a traveling document.
Moua saw trouble with Minnesota’s head gear exemption to be in conflict with the Department of Homeland Security policy which does not allow an exemption. Moua said it was ironic that the U.S. Passport regulations issued by the same agency does allow for the headgear exemption.
“I said on the record that this creates a problem for an entire sector of people in our community, and that it is an equal access issue,” she said. “If you don’t have the ability to negotiate with the federal government to accommodate these individuals the way the Minnesota law has, then in essence it is creating two classes of Minnesotans, a class being discriminated against if they wear a headdress.”
Moua said the government can always accommodate and it makes sense from a cultural and religious and public safety perspective. It is not always a win-lose, zero sum scenario, she added. “There is a win-win in this.”
Moua said the community needs to keep reminding the legislature that the number of AAPI hunters and anglers in the state brings over $1 million in annual fees alone even before special stamps and permits. Yet, there is often a tendency to cut funding for programs aimed at hiring SE Asian DNR officers, translated regulations and information materials, and the programs to help improve understanding between peoples of different cultures.
Moua said the Capitol Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunter’s Association has helped as a place where people involved with hunting and fishing go to talk not just about problems but as a brotherhood of hunting and fishing that transcends racial and cultural boundaries.
“That is a good thing,” she added.
When the sportsmen and women find common bonds then they can together solve the no trespassing sign issues that has become the rationale for hostility. She said confusion stems from laws which allow land to be reserved for family use part of the year and then for public use during other months.
“No one ever talks about the tone or the context,” she said. “Many hunters tell me that because of those practices it makes it very difficult to try to identify the boundaries of what it private land and what is public land. Especially if those private land owners would lease the land back to the DNR for public hunting.”
Moua was the Chair of the Judiciary Committee and served on the Finance committees in the areas of public safety and transportation budget and policy. She was also on the Property Tax committee and the Transportation Committee.
She is active with the Second Chance Coalition on legislation on the Reentry and Collateral Consequences and a Result of Criminal Records. It is an area she cares deeply about and much of it did not require funding.
The coalition works on background checks, the rights of people out of prison, collateral sanctions, expunging or sealing up criminal records. She said much progress has been made in incremental stages to systematically address these issues.
Moua said she was troubled by the opposition to their work on ensuring the state do a better job of enabling ex-felony offenders to be able to participate in the electoral process. Some states allow inmates to vote while in prison, while others allow it upon their release. Minnesota allows it upon the completion of a 10 years probationary period upon release.
Moua attempted to make Minnesota enable ex-felony offenders to vote upon release. When this did not gain support she introduced a compromise bill that would include the mandatory probationary period but require the probation officer to include one additional letter in their discharge notice to indicate the date they would be eligible to register to vote.
Without the letter, Moua said the current system allows people to continue to be disinfranchised because they won’t know officially when they are “off papers” and eligible to vote.
“They just know that so long as they have a felony that they are barred from voting,” she said. “We have many people who have done their time, are off papers and are eligible to vote, but they don’t know they are eligible and they continue to not participate.”
Moua said so long as ex-offenders are made to feel they are barred they will not feel anchored, effective and participatory citizens – as studies show does happen with more welcoming policies toward ex-offenders and is effective in undercutting recidivism.
Governor Pawlenty vetoed that bill, Moua said as it most likely provided fear that it would be viewed as being soft on crime. She said the bill would likely brought return with the change in administration.
Moua is also concerned about the extent that criminal background checks have gone beyond purpose and need to have state commissioners again enabled to allow exemptions on a case by case basis.
She said the arrest or conviction record makes it difficult to become realtor, an aesthetician, a hair stylist, or any jobs that requires a state license. Because the background checks are now automatic there is no room for discretion.
She said the areas of discretion would allow a state commissioner to approve a license in cases where for example, someone has a conviction for a nonviolent crime when they were young and are now obviously law-abiding citizens. Or, where a conviction would not produce a relevant concern or danger with the issuance of the license.
In matters with the juvenile justice system Moua said they have made progress with agency conversations so that juvenile justice and child welfare system know how to cross over and talk to one other about how to deal with children going through the system. She said too often kids in the foster system and the juvenile justice system are suffering from the same issues but one is treated as a victim with the other as a criminal.
“The reason for one being in one system or the other are the same reasons,” she said. “So that is a package of work that is ongoing and I hope that somebody picks up the conversation on that.”
Moua was successful in passing legislation to restructure all of the state drug and gang task force databases. She said they are re-branded and restructured to recognize the multi-jurisdictional nature of gang involvement that leads not only into gangs but drug activities.
“The one disappointment I had was that I wanted to outlaw what I thought to be profiling in databases; that did not have specific criteria for how somebody ends up in that database,” she added. “It didn’t have any criteria to govern how somebody gets purged from the database, and didn’t have any governing policy for how long you can be in the database.”
Moua would like to see criteria for database prosecution use, whether it is for investigative purposes, and how private and confidential is the date in noting who has access and who does not.
She said the inability to pass database definitions legislation means that the Ramsey County Sheriff’s gang database with 16,000 names does not state how old those names are on the list, if its confidential, and whether law enforcement maintains it as an investigative database, and how long a name can remain as investigative data.
Having a name on the database for any reason gives the sheriff’s office the discretion to decline a permit to carry a weapon which she feels is a very arbitrary discretion.
“They say people haven’t asked to be removed but how do they know?”
Moua said law enforcement needs to have some latitude to do their work. She said the community has a responsibility to self-regulate, such as behaving or dressing or being around criminal activity.
However, she said when the statistics show an over-representation and a disproportionate impact on specific groups of individuals, the the responsible thing for the community and law enforcement is to look what is inherent to the it is conducting its work and if it or other factors are leading to that result.
“Oftentimes its not so much the answer to those questions; it is the willingness and the affirmative intention in asking those questions that is important,” said Moua. “What you have here is a situation where law enforcement is saying there is no problem and we don’t need to be asking those questions.
“The community is saying, yes, there is a problem because the numbers say so,” she added. “The truth is somewhere in the middle – that it is a little bit of both.”
Moua said that it is not a case of a few rotten apples in the police that are the source of problems, any more than a few rotten apples are the source of criminal activity in the community. She said it is an institutional culture that allows rotten apples to surface and perpetuate their practices and that is it needs to take responsibility for them rather than defending them at the cost of trust in the community.
“The issue isn’t even about identifying one answer or pointing a finger at one particular source or the other,” she said. “Its about building the trust and the relationship, and just about asking an open ended question and inviting participation regardless of whether it ultimately results in something. That for me is the product that will build relationships with the community.”
For the next District 67 State Senator (this interview was conducted in late summer – before the primary when there were seven DFL candidates including four Hmong candidates – she said the task is just to do their job well enough so that none of the constituency groups feel like they are missing her not being there.
Retired Saint Paul Police Chief John Harrington won the election and was fond of quoting his friend Mee Moua in his campaign.