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No matter who wins, the next Ramsey County commissioner representing the East Side of St. Paul will be a Hmong woman.
And the winner will be the first Hmong county commissioner elected in Minnesota, according to the Association of Minnesota Counties.
Mai Chong Xiong, 33, is a longtime legislative aide to the St. Paul City Council. Ying Vang-Pao, 56, works as a financial consultant. The two are vying to replace Jim McDonough, who has held the seat representing the East Side for 22 years.
Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, is happy to see the historic race. “This is what democracy is all about,” he said.
St. Paul’s Greater East Side is an increasingly young, diverse, and low-income neighborhood. More than 60 percent of its residents are people of color; Asians, who are 35 percent of neighborhood residents, are the largest demographic group.
Both Mai Chong Xiong and Ying Vang-Pao hope to bring personal experience navigating county services for their families to the County Board. Both hope to prioritize affordable housing. But they would bring different approaches to the role.
The two candidates attract different generations of voters, said Xiong of the Center for Hmong Studies. Mai Chong Xiong, whom he called a “fixture in the community,” is active in progressive politics and a favorite of younger voters, he said. She also carries the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.
Ying Vang-Pao is more popular with older and Republican voters, he said. (Both candidates are Democrats.) Though she’s newer to Minnesota and less well-known in the community, she shares a name with her father, the legendary General Vang Pao. Pao led the CIA-funded “secret war” in Laos, and then shepherded many Hmong people into life outside of Southeast Asia when the Vietnam War ended. Some have called him the “George Washington of the Hmong.”
The outcome of the election will come down to the candidates’ abilities to reach out to voters and organize, said Lee Pao Xiong.
“May the best person win,” he said.
‘Organizing is what’s needed to actually make progressive change’
From the age of 12, Mai Chong Xiong called caseworkers for her parents to make sure they could maintain county benefits such as cash assistance, food support, and health care. 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.
After college, Xiong got involved with the organizing and advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, working on successful campaigns to defeat constitutional amendments that would have required photo identification to vote and banned same-sex marriage. 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.”
If she wins, she hopes to improve access to affordable housing. The East Side, she said, is “one of the last places where it’s affordable to live,” and many low-income homeowners live there, she noted.
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.
‘Things change from top down’
Ying Vang-Pao also has encountered challenges navigating social services for family members. Her 25-year-old daughter is blind and relies on Metro Mobility for transportation. It sometimes took her three hours to get home from school, Vang-Pao said. When Vang-Pao’s mother had cancer, it took their California county more than a month to approve the surgery she needed. Because of that delay, her mother died, Vang-Pao said.
“I understand the complexity and how difficult it is to navigate the county services,” she said.
Vang-Pao was previously known as Mai Ying Exequiel. That name appears on her affidavit of candidacy and campaign finance reports. She told Sahan Journal she is in the midst of a divorce and plans to formally change her name to Ying Vang-Pao to honor her father.
As county commissioner, Vang-Pao says, she would work to diversify staffing at the management level. “Things change from top down,” she said. “So if we have management that reflects the community, they have a better understanding of what programs or what things the community needs.”
Vang-Pao would also focus on public safety, and touts 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.
If elected, Vang-Pao said, she would work to revive a program similar to Totem Town, a residential treatment center for high-risk youth that was shuttered in 2019. A Star Tribune investigation found that as juvenile detention centers like Totem Town closed, the state and counties failed to provide alternatives to rehabilitate troubled young people.
“It’s what these children need instead of just throwing them in jail and then throwing back to where they come from,” she said. “Some of these kids are coming from very dysfunctional or very harsh atmospheres at home.”
Hmong candidates on the ballot, Hmong interpreters at the polls
The growing Hmong population in Ramsey County will be reflected in another way at the polls. This year, for the first time, the county is required to train and provide Hmong interpreter election judges at the polls under the federal Voting Rights Act. That’s because the 2020 Census showed that Hmong residents make up more than 5 percent of the county’s voting-age population.
Early voting is underway and will continue through November 7. You can also vote at your polling place on Election Day: Tuesday, November 8.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Ying Vang-Pao’s name and political party affiliation.