Mai Chong Xiong will be Minnesota's first Hmong county commissioner. She will represent the East Side of St. Paul on the Ramsey County board. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Mai Chong Xiong bested Ying Vang-Pao by a slim margin Tuesday to win the race for Ramsey County commissioner. Xiong will be Minnesota’s first Hmong county commissioner.

Xiong received 50 percent of the vote, with all precincts reporting and 15,773 votes cast between the two candidates. Xiong led Vang-Pao by 213 votes, or about 1 percentage point. Vang-Pao received about 49 percent of the vote.

Xiong declared victory in a Facebook post.

“WE DID IT!!” Xiong wrote. “I’m so proud of all the amazing work we’ve accomplished together on this campaign. We built the broadest and most diverse coalition of elected leaders, community organizations, and working-class people in the history of this district.

“Tonight’s victory also means I will be the youngest person and the first Asian American and first Hmong American elected to the Ramsey County Board,” Xiong wrote in her Facebook post. “But this historic win is not just a victory for me, it’s for all of us. It’s a victory for all the young children, all the working-class people who are getting by paycheck-to-paycheck, all of the people going through housing instability. This victory is for you, and I promise that I will always fight for you and with you.”

In an interview Wednesday, Xiong said she felt privileged and honored.

“It just reaffirmed that organizing works, and it matters, especially in districts like mine, where a lot of people don’t vote,” she said.

Xiong expressed excitement about other DFL wins throughout the state, including Democratic control of both chambers of the Legislature. She hopes the Legislature allocates resources to her priorities at the county level.

“I feel like we can get a lot of things done with a lot of resources for affordable housing,” she said.

Xiong commended her opponent, Vang-Pao, for engaging voters in the race.

“For so long, people never knew what our county commissioners did,” Xiong said. “I’m just so happy that both of our campaigns were able to talk about what the county actually does, their role, and our vision for it.”

The next county commissioner will bring representation to a diverse district on the East Side of St. Paul. In the Greater East Side, 60 percent of residents are people of color. Asians are the largest demographic group, making up 35 percent of the area.

“I’m a first generation Hmong American,” Xiong, a longtime city council aide, told Sahan Journal last week. “I had to navigate the county systems for my parents who are refugees and who didn’t speak English very well. And I believe that that’s the demographic for new immigrants who are moving here to the East Side because it’s one of the last places where it’s affordable to live.”

Vang-Pao, 56, emphasized public safety in her platform. She touted endorsements from Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher as well as former St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney.

“We need to put programs back to help these youth go in the right direction and make a better life, because that affects our crime rate,” she said.

Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, was glad to see two Hmong women competing for the historic milestone. He described Mai Chong Xiong as a “fixture in the community” who is popular with younger voters and known for being active in progressive politics.

Having a Hmong voice on the county board could help address critical issues in the community like mental health and elder care, he said.

Mai Chong Xiong helped her parents navigate county services starting from the age of 12, calling caseworkers to make sure they could maintain their benefits. Xiong’s family faced housing instability throughout her childhood. At one point, they had to move in with another family—a total of 18 people lived in a three-bedroom home.

“It’s traumatic to the point where we still remember who our caseworker is, and the types of letters that we got,” she said.

As county commissioner, she hopes to improve access to affordable housing. Xiong wants the county to make grants and loans available for repairs and maintenance “to have safe and dignified housing.”

She’d also like to see more housing built. And she’d work to ensure that the new housing development at the former Hillcrest golf course is accessible to people with low incomes.

“I want to make sure that the county is a big partner in that,” she said.

Xiong previously served as board chair for the progressive organizing and advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota. She’s worked on successful campaigns to defeat constitutional amendments that would have banned same-sex marriage and required photo identification to vote.

She also helped with campaigns to pass a $15 minimum wage and paid sick time at the local level, she said.

“Organizing with people both inside and outside [of government] is what’s needed to actually make progressive change,” Xiong said. “If we bring that type of energy to the County Board, we’ll get so much more involvement and engagement to really direct policy.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...