Nine-way race for Senator Mee Moua’s St. Paul seat


Following Sen. Mee Moua’s surprise retirement announcement in the closing moments of this year’s legislative session, a diverse group of nine DFL candidates is seeking to represent St. Paul’s East Side at the Capitol next year. 

Everyone from a recent college graduate to a retired police chief to a banjo player has thrown their hat in the ring to represent Senate District 67 and hopes to be one of the two finalists to emerge from Tuesday’s primary.

Moua, who has represented the East Side since 2002 in the Minnesota Senate, did not endorse anybody as her successor, and neither did the local DFL party.

The winner of the August 10 primary will go on to face two opponents in November — Independence Party-endorsed Dino Guerin (no Web site), the former Ramsey County commissioner and St. Paul City Council member, and Republican Krysia Weidell.

In race for the seat held by the nation’s first Hmong-American legislator, the field includes four Hmong-American candidates, two African-American candidates, two white candidates and one Indian-American candidate.

District DFL leaders expect turnout to be low, possibly only 6,000 voters, and the top vote-getter could win with just 20 percent of the vote if the field is evenly split.

As with all 67 Minnesota Senate seats up for election this year, the eventual winner will serve a two-year term instead of the normal four years because the districts will be redrawn following the results of this year’s Census.


John Harrington

John M. Harrington

With perhaps the greatest name-recognition advantage going into the primary, Harrington served as St. Paul’s top cop for the last six years, the cap on a 33-year law enforcement career in St. Paul.

Harrington, who supported then-President George W. Bush in 2004, is a recent convert to the DFL Party. He lists public safety as one of his top policy concerns, but also education, economic opportunity and civil rights — he opposes using local police to enforce immigration laws.

He is endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and other law enforcement groups.

Harrington did not respond to requests for information or an interview beyond what his campaign literature and Web site state.


Foung Hawj

Foung Hawj

Hawj, a self-employed multimedia producer and one of four Hmong-American candidates in the primary, has the endorsement of Minnesota’s second Hmong-American lawmaker, the also-retiring Rep. Cy Thao of St. Paul.

He is the co-founder of the Hmong-American DFL caucus and a DFL precinct chairman. He is also a co-founder of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent.

Hawj lists the East Side’s high foreclosure rate as a top policy concern, alongside jobs, education and the environment. He said he has a 20-year track record of community volunteerism that makes his candidacy stand out.

“I am the candidate that earns the trust of my neighbors, the leadership of the Hmong community and the respect from mainstream elected officials,” he said. “I will bring people together in this tough economic time to rejuvenate the East Side.”


Tom Hilber

Tom Hilber

“Banjo Tom” Hilber has run for St. Paul Mayor, City Council, St. Paul school board and Ramsey County commissioner before, but never the Legislature.

He opposes both abortion rights and raising taxes, and lists public pensions, union contracts and salaries as major budget problems for the state.

“It’s not that I’m against public employees, it’s just that in the private sector we don’t get these perks and job security and pension bailouts that they will be asking for,” Hilber said.

Hilber is a former school teacher who is employed as a chemical dependency technician.


Chai Lee

A recent graduate of Carleton College who is on leave as a constituency services representative for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Lee is the youngest candidate in the primary field.

But he says he’s been involved in the legislative process since he was in high school, advocating for higher education tuition breaks for the children of undocumented immigrants and serving on the legislative Youth Advisory Council.

He lists education as a top priority, along with maintaining and improving public infrastructure and public safety.

“”When our kids need to be most competitive in the global economy, our schools are closing,” Lee said. “I will fight for our children and their future.”


Vang Lor

Vang T. Lor

A community organizer with Take Action Minnesota, Lor brings that progressive group’s reach, muscle and energy with him as its endorsed candidate in the primary.

Lor cites his efforts to build a coalition to include Hmong history included in the curriculum in St. Paul’s school district as an example of achieving results for the community.

He cited education as a top concern, along with job creation, public safety and seniors.

“East Side residents should elect me because I believe in creating an inclusive environment where everyone will be heard at the Capitol,” he said.


Jim McGowan

Jim McGowan

A small-business owner and advocate for people with diabetes, McGowan emphasizes his 20+ year history living in the East Side and knowledge of how the Legislature works.

He lists past jobs as a legislative assistant, farmhand, landscaper and in the publishing industry as assets that help him relate to other East Siders.

“My experience comes as someone who understands what it means to raise a family here, who can relate to the challenges of joblessness and the fear of losing one’s home,” he said. “Someone who has a proven record of fighting for the needs and rights of people, as a citizen, not a paid staffer or government employee.”

McGowan puts jobs and economic development at the top of his list, along with housing, neighborhood security, education, fairness for all and older Minnesotans.


Trayshana Thomas

Originally from South Central Los Angeles, Thomas moved to St. Paul to start a family and ended up working for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison at his law firm.

Work for the NAACP and as a legislative assistant to Sen. Linda Higgins followed before Thomas went back to work for her old boss in his bid for Congress and on his Congressional staff afterward.

She lists Ellison and Higgins as endorsements in her bid, along with Minneapolis DFL lawmakers Bobbie Champion and Jeff Hayden, the DFL African-American caucus and WomenWinning, the Minnesota political action committee dedicated to electing female candidates who support abortion rights.

Thomas did not respond to requests for information or an interview for this article, but lists job creation at the top of her priority list, including supporting small businesses, bringing stimulus projects to the district and investing in green jobs and technologies.


Avi Viswanathan

With a resume that includes past jobs in constituent service for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, community activist at TakeAction Minnesota and political director for NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, Viswanathan said he has the best background for addressing the needs of the district.

His political support includes St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry, Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, Stonewall DFL, his former NARAL employers and Minnesota NOW, among other groups.

Viswanathan was the former president of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council, and wants to address home foreclosures in the Legislature because they are an issue on the East Side and something he has experience with working for Franken.

“There I worked with individuals facing foreclosure assisting them in being able to stay in their homes,” he said. “That has been an issue that has affected many families on the East Side, and I want to continue working to address this in the Legislature.”


Cha Yang

Involved with Hmong issues in Massachusetts and Minnesota since the 1990s, Yang became John Kerry’s DFL Hmong campaign coordinator in Minnesota during his 2004 presidential bid.

He is a landlord and full time student, seeking a doctorate in education leadership from St. Mary’s University. He also lists himself as founder and executive director of Cultivating Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to at-risk youth.

Yang did not respond to requests for more information or an interview for this story, but lists “jobs, jobs and more jobs” as his top priority on his campaign material and Web site.

He outlines plans to retain current East Side businesses as employers, recruit new small and large businesses, capture bonding bill money for the district and informing small businesses of existing tax breaks.