Former congressional staffer Liz Lee is running to represent the East Side of St. Paul in the Minnesota House. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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As a child, Liz Lee once wrote her full Hmong name on the back of a black chair in her bedroom using white correction fluid—“Kaozoupa Elizabeth Lee.”

She followed it with the words, “President of the United States,” recalled her younger sister, Pajouablai Lee.

“That’s just one example of how ambitious Liz was,” Pajouablai Lee said. “She was just always trying to think of … what could she do to break barriers and make sure other Hmong girls and women have role models to look up to?”

Lee, a former congressional staffer and nonprofit consultant, isn’t running for president; she’s opting for another seat.

Lee, 33, is running for the Minnesota House of Representatives in District 67A, the East Side of St. Paul where she grew up. On March 26, the first time candidate won the DFL endorsement against incumbent Representative John Thompson, putting her on the path to become the first woman to represent the district.

Lee formerly worked for Senator Amy Klobuchar for two years as a congressional staffer. She also worked as a congressional staffer for Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison for two years when he was in Congress, and earned his endorsement for the Minnesota House. Lee also worked for former U.S. Representative Barbara Lee.

As Lee sat with Sahan Journal at Caydence Records & Coffee on Payne and Yorke Avenue in St. Paul, her quiet voice fighting against loud rock music, she told Sahan Journal about her hometown.

“The East Side has always been about welcoming immigrants, refugees, and new folks to the community,” Lee told Sahan Journal. “I thought it was really important to have a new voice to advocate for everybody on the East Side.”

Lee emerged as a popular candidate at the DFL House Convention in March, amid controversy surrounding Thompson, who found himself under scrutiny last July after police reports documented domestic violence allegations against him. Thompson, who rose to prominence by advocating for police reform after his best friend, Philando Castile, was fatally shot by an officer during a traffic stop, and his lawyer have denied the allegations.

Candidates Hoang Murphy and Joseph Bruer also sought the DFL endorsement. In the final round of balloting, Lee received 65.6 percent of votes, and Thompson received 20.8 percent.

Lee is particularly passionate about supporting working families by making sure they have health care, fully-funded public schools, and access to affordable housing. Health equity and the impact of climate change on communities of color have also frequently come up in her conversations with voters, she said.

“As long as we center our working-class families—a lot of them are families of color—we will address all these things,” Lee said.

Running to represent her home turf

Growing up, Lee lived in public housing with her mother and four siblings, while her dad attended college. Her immigrant parents faced difficulty finding realtors who were willing to show them the houses for sale, Lee recalled. They eventually found a home on St. Paul’s East Side, and Lee enrolled in Saint Paul Public Schools for the next 13 years. Her first job was delivering the Eastside Review, the community newspaper. 

Lee started college at Yale University in 2007. After graduating, she worked for multiple members of Congress in Washington D.C. On her website, Lee said she spent the last decade advocating for health equity, bridging the academic achievement gap, increasing affordable housing availability, and reinvesting in public transit.

Lee worked on Capitol Hill in D.C. for roughly 10 years. Watching her parents’ advocacy work for other Hmong families and community members sparked Lee’s interest for community organizing. She was a member of the speech and debate teams in school and interned at the Minnesota Capitol. She said she has registered people to vote since she was 10 years old, and has translated for others since she was seven years old.

Lee’s sister, Pajouablai, recalled as a child witnessing the challenges refugee families in St. Paul faced to meet their basic needs. She remembered their family going to food shelves and the local Salvation Army.

“Language barriers—food and income disparities—were so real,” Pajouablai Lee said. “My mom worked a lot of odd jobs to make sure we always had food on the table, make sure we had extra income to make ends meet.” 

The Lee’s had it a bit easier than others because their parents knew English. Their mother also worked for the Saint Paul Public Schools supporting families of immigrant students. Their father worked on U.S. Representative Betty McCollum’s campaign in 2000,  and he is now a senior district office representative for her office. In those roles, Lee’s parents often served as interpreters for nonprofit groups and government agencies trying to connect with Hmong residents.

“Our district is pretty blue collar. People are working Saturdays on two to three jobs to make ends meet,” Lee said.

The median household income in the East Side is below $60,000 a year. Residents in the community are fairly split between renters and homeowners. And the neighborhood is also incredibly diverse. More than 58 percent of the population is made up of people of color, and 34 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander. The city’s Hmong community is heavily concentrated on the East Side. 

One of Lee’s favorite places in the city is Hmong Village, a sprawling shopping center featuring food vendors and stalls that sell everything from clothing to Asian beauty products. During the 2020 presidential election, Lee and her sister canvassed at Hmong Village and registered people to vote. She’s found similar support there for her own campaign. 

Lee has also appeared on Hmong TV and Hmong YouTube shows to raise awareness about her campaign. She’s active on most social media platforms and stressed the importance of posting campaign materials in Hmong on Facebook, since that’s where her community is most active. 

“I’m able to say, ‘I’m your Hmong daughter from the East Side. Hmong Village is one of my favorite places, because it’s where I feel at home.’” Lee said.

While working out of the back room at Caydence Records & Coffee, Lee ordered the mint mocha. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she’s found comfort in trying new coffee shops. Lee added that she’s into classical music, and has had the Encanto soundtrack, John Legend, and American composers on repeat lately.

Lee’s sister described her as the type of person to send you flowers when you’re having a bad day, or doughnuts on your birthday.

“My sister is one of those kinds of people who wants you to know that she’s thinking of you and cares for you and you’re not alone,” Pajouablai Lee said.

Finding her footing on Capitol Hill

Lee’s no stranger to the backend work of politics. 

She started her political career by working for Klobuchar in 2011. She also worked for a labor union representing foreign service officers, where she first met then-Congressman Ellison. By 2015, she was working for Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California as a congressional aide. 

“I kind of started my career of working for these really amazing progressive giants,” Lee said. “I was okay working until midnight because I knew we were helping people.”

Once she started working for Ellison, Lee said she had solidified her political philosophy: centering people affected by policy decisions and making sure she’s empowering them—not just representing them.

“That’s why it’s so important for the district to have its first woman, and first Asian woman, to represent it,” Lee said. “I’m making my own path and developing my own grassroots organizing here, but that’s also at the core of Keith’s philosophy too: people power.”

Ellison remembered Lee as the type of worker who showed up early and stayed late. He described her as smart, diligent, and someone who worked well with others.

“She listens. She doesn’t need to be the one talking,” Ellison said. “She seems like she would rather hear what someone else’s story is, and I can tell you, she’s taking all that in and she’s going to do something about it.”

When Lee first decided to run, she called Ellison to tell him the news. Ellison said he advised her to outwork the opposition—make more calls, knock on more doors, and show up to more places.

Ellison endorsed Lee’s campaign in January and has joined her in town-hall meetings. 

“People just really want to have some balance and security,” Ellison said of the town hall attendees. “They want people who are going to stand up for their rights. Liz brings that.”

Lee’s biggest challenge if elected, he noted, will be to earn the cooperation of  Republicans in the split Minnesota Legislature.

Lee said she has experience engaging Republicans in Congress while working on the House Appropriations Committee. Lee said she helped pass bills putting millions of dollars into STEM education for girls and students of color. She credits some of her success in passing these bills to finding Republican partners who recognized the need to fill jobs in the tech industry.

“It’s finding people who have at least aligned goals, if not aligned values,” Lee said. 

The point of policymaking, regardless of party, is to address the issues an official’s constituency faces. Republicans and Democrats just differ on how to get there, Lee said. But she said she’ll know when to push the opposition’s buttons on behalf of the people she represents.

“We live in a very vibrant democracy that we have to protect,” Lee said. “We know the system doesn’t always work for our entire community. I’m really excited because, on the first day, I know exactly what to do to help those communities.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.