Hnuchee Vang, left, and ThaoMee Xiong, right, are leaders of Maiv PAC, the first Hmong American women's PAC in the country. The PAC, formed in 2016, is this year endorsing candidates in legislative districts with high Hmong populations throughout the state. It's part of the Hmong community's growing political force in Minnesota. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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The first thing KaYing Yang noticed about Jill Biden during her campaign stop at Hmong Village earlier this month was her mask.

As the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden toured the Hmong shopping center, the aspiring First Lady wore a mask decorated in the style of paj ntaub, the floral embroidery patterns traditional in Hmong culture.

“It was heartwarming that she understood she was coming to see a community that values handmade textiles, and that we have artistic skills in our culture,” Yang said.

Earlier this fall in neighboring Wisconsin, Joe Biden met privately with a Hmong veteran of the Secret War. It’s believed to be the first time a presidential candidate has met with a Hmong veteran as part of a campaign.

The Bidens’ targeted outreach to the Hmong community marks a recognition of its political importance. The Hmong population is growing, and while it traditionally had been solidly Democratic, Republicans have been making inroads over the last few years. 

The number of eligible Asian American voters in Minnesota grew by 43 percent between 2012 and 2018 to 155,000, and the largest share of those are Hmong, according to APIA Vote, a national group focused on Asian American civic engagement. The DFL estimates there are 35,000 eligible Hmong voters in Minnesota — just shy of the margin by which Hillary Clinton won the state four years ago. In Wisconsin, where Trump won in 2016 by an even smaller margin, Hmong voters could be decisive too.

About three-quarters of Hmong voters nationwide supported Clinton, according to the National Asian American Survey. But most of those did not strongly identify with a party: 70 percent said they were independent.

This year, community organizers say the Hmong community is more energized to vote than ever. But the Hmong vote isn’t homogeneous, they say.

“You can’t take for granted that Hmong American voters are going to be Democrats,” said ThaoMee Xiong, one of the co-founders of Minnesota-based Maiv PAC, the first Hmong American women’s political action committee in the country. She has noticed an increase in Republican activity that wasn’t there when she first volunteered on Mee Moua’s state senate campaign in 2001. (Moua won, becoming the first Hmong American legislator in the country.)

Jennifer Carnahan, chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, agrees. “The biggest mistake people make, especially the Democratic Party, is people assume because we’re minorities that we’re going to be Democrats,” she said. “And we’re not. And that’s actually a form of racism, making assumptions of people based on what they look like.”

“I’ve never seen so much engagement,” said Bao Vang, president and CEO of the Hmong American Partnership, “and I’ve never seen so much division in terms of political affiliation.”

Those divisions appear in social media arguments and discussions in teleconference calls, where many Hmong people get their news, she said. People are largely stuck at home due to the pandemic, Vang said, so they are more active on social media and in conference calls. And the current political climate—with the coronavirus, increased anti-Asian racism, economic downturn, and civil unrest that’s shaken the Hmong community—evokes strong political sentiments that can manifest in support for either major party.

“We can be the swing vote,” Yang said. “I think that we need to understand that that’s the power that we hold.”

Jill Biden visits community leaders on a campaign stop at Hmong Village in mid-October. Credit: Courtesy KaYing Yang

The new swing voter?

When protests broke out this summer after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, many Hmong people stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, disavowing the Hmong officer who stood by as Floyd died. For some, his death hit close to home: 19-year-old Fong Lee, who was Hmong, was killed by Minneapolis police in 2006.

But for others, Bao Vang said, the civil unrest was deeply troubling. Some Hmong businesses were destroyed. For others, seeing a city burn, watching historical statues topple, and not knowing whether they could count on police protection reminded them of traumas they thought they’d left behind.

That’s contributing to Hmong support for Trump, she said. “It makes some of them swing the other way: We need a strong president who’s going to deal with this issue,” she said.

But it didn’t start there. Last year, the Trump campaign co-sponsored the Hmong New Year. At the time, Alpha News reported that the Republican National Committee was stepping up its outreach efforts to Asian Americans, hiring Mandarin- and Vietnamese-speaking staffers. And this summer, Republican senatorial candidate Jason Lewis met business leaders at Hmong Village with Sia Lo, the first Hmong Congressional candidate in Minnesota—a Republican. (Lo later lost his primary to Gene Rechtzigel, who faces incumbent Betty McCollum for the St. Paul-based seat in a DFL stronghold.)

Carnahan said in an interview that for the first time, the party has a dedicated outreach director to Minnesota’s Asian American communities. Carnahan also serves on the advisory board of Asian Pacific Americans for Trump, which is helping the party build relationships in Minnesota’s Asian communities, she said.

“When you only have one party talking to you for decades and you’re not hearing another voice or another side, those voters trend in that direction,” she said. “We are going to see a very big shift in Minnesota this cycle.”

She cited what she said were the many shared values between Asian communities and the Republican Party. 

“A lot of the immigrants who’ve come over from Southeast Asian communities fled Communist countries to achieve the American dream,” she said. “It’s been heartwarming to hear their stories and build those connections. We have candidates who believe in them and believe in their stories and want to pass it down to the next generation.”

Democrats, too, have more infrastructure and motivation to target Hmong voters than ever before.

In recent years, the increase in the number of Hmong elected officials has inspired new voters to turn out. Voters elected four new Hmong lawmakers to serve in the Minnesota State Capitol in 2018, joining two incumbents—all Democrats.

Now, the Biden campaign has a Hmong American affinity group in Minnesota and a state director focused on Asian American engagement.

KaYing Yang, who volunteers with Hmong Americans for Biden, has been involved in civic issues for years. But this is the first time she’s publicly supported a presidential candidate. “I think that in the last four years, we’ve seen a lot of the xenophobic rhetoric nationally and rippling down locally, so it compelled me to get involved in partisan politics,” she said.

Clinton’s unexpected loss in 2016—and narrow win in Minnesota—demonstrated the importance of getting involved, she said. And Trump’s frequent visits to the state show that it’s in play again this year, too.

“We know that we cannot take anything for granted,” she said. “During the Hillary campaign, we all felt like we’re going to vote for Hillary, and that’s it. Now, we’re going to vote for Joe Biden, and we’re going to get all of our family members to vote for Joe Biden.”

The affinity group has been reaching out to voters in Hmong and English across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. One virtual phone bank featured Olympic ice skater Michelle Kwan, who now works as Biden’s director of campaign surrogates.

In key swing states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Hmong vote could be decisive. And the connection from one Hmong voter to another can go a long way.

“Hmong American voters feel pretty special when there’s a Hmong American volunteer calling to reach out to them,” said Xiong with Maiv PAC.

Kamala Harris’ spot as Joe Biden’s running mate is also inspiring Hmong voters to get involved, Yang said.

“Part of us being so passionate is also we might have, we will have, a vice president who is Black and Asian and that’s never happened before,” she said. It’s especially exciting to women, she added, who are frequently behind the scenes leading phone banks.

Wilson Lee, the Minnesota Asian American community engagement director for the Biden/Harris campaign, said it’s the first year that role has existed for a Democratic presidential candidate in Minnesota. His days are filled with organizing events, recruiting volunteers, and reaching out to community leaders.

Yang hopes that if elected president, Biden will remember Hmong voters’ role in electing him.

“I think to have an inclusive diverse administration is very important, to show there are Asian Americans, including Hmong Americans, at the top levels of government,” she said. She wants policy changes, too. “We want immigration reform that unites families instead of breaking up families,” she added, noting that southeast Asian communities have been hit hard by deportations. “And we want affordable health care, just like everyone else.”

Getting out the vote in a pandemic

With limited in-person outreach, “everything is twice as hard,” said Kristina Doan, the director of public policy at CAPI, which provides services to immigrants, refugees, and people of color.

Simply helping clients fill out voter registration forms or requests for absentee ballots is much more difficult: To request an absentee ballot, you need an email address. And under state law, you can’t fill out a voter registration form on someone else’s behalf. So it’s harder for CAPI staff to help people register if they don’t speak English or don’t have access to the internet.

“There are a lot of technology and language barriers that normally we would have remedied by doing outreach in person,” Doan said.

Outreach through the organization’s food shelf has been an important strategy, Doan said. Organizers greeted clients who arrived to pick up groceries, and offered information on how to vote, register, and request absentee ballots. Emergency food assistance boxes to seniors included information on the census and voting.

Many people in the Hmong community get news from radio and TV programs connected to YouTube. So online modes of communication like social media and Zoom webcasts, a necessity in a pandemic election, can reach the community well.

“We do a lot of video recordings because we are traditionally an oral language,” said Yang with Hmong Americans for Biden. “The written form works, but not all the time.”

But that doesn’t work for everyone, especially older voters or those who may not have technology access. 

CAPI and the Coalition of Asian American Leaders teamed up to translate and disseminate a voter guide in eight languages, including Hmong, describing what elected officials in different roles on the ballot are responsible for. Both groups have also sent mailers targeted to voters who speak various languages. Though CAAL has been involved in advocacy work for years, it’s the organization’s first year doing voter outreach, said Nick Kor.

“We know this is a really important election, and we want to make sure no one is left out of this process,” he said.

Making sure people know the new ways of voting is important too. Terri Thao, a co-founder of Maiv PAC, noted that while many Hmong elders have been voting for decades, this year is different. “We’re concerned about Election Day, because they go to the poll,” she said. “We’re worried about that routine.”

Reaching young people in a pandemic has challenges of its own. The Asian American Organizing Project, which focuses on young Asian voters in Minnesota, has sent plenty of text messages. But they’ve been shifting to relational organizing: people turning out their friends and families. 

“There’s a lot of saturation and misinformation on social media,” Linda Her, AAOP’s executive director, said. “We really want to make sure that the voters are hearing from the people they trust.” 

‘Your idea of democracy’

A week before the election, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon appeared on a live Facebook webcast, hosted by comedian Tou Ger Xiong and sponsored by the Hmong American Partnership. Xiong posed questions to Simon as voters commented on the Facebook link. One voter asked what she should do if her absentee ballot hadn’t arrived yet. (Call your local elections office or vote in person.) Another asked about challenges at the polls. The secretary of state clarified that each political party gets one challenger per polling place—and they can only challenge a voter based on personal knowledge.

Simon also reminded them about a change to the law: Now, there’s no limit to the number of voters a person can help at the polls. This will be a big help to the Hmong community, because a voter who reads English can help their whole family, instead of only three people, he said. Panelists noted how helpful it would be to have young people able to help their elders. 

In closing, Tou Ger Xiong noted that Hmong voters come in every political stripe.

“We were born in a country where if we voiced our political opinion, we could lose our lives,” Xiong said to conclude the webcast. A community holding a variety of political beliefs, he said, “is the true idea of assimilating. So go out there and vote for the leaders you can be proud of,” he told his audience. “That will be the projection of your idea of democracy.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.