Foung Hawj is poised to win Senate District 67 in St. Paul, following in the footsteps of Mee Moua
Two years ago Foung Hawj was an also-ran in the Senate District 67 contest. In a nine-candidate DFL primary field, he finished with 10 percent of the vote — more than 20 points behind the winner, former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington.
When Harrington bowed out after just one term, Hawj (pronounced “Her”) once again sought the open Senate seat representing St. Paul’s East Side. By most commonly considered metrics, he once again looked like an underdog in the three-candidate field. Robert Humphrey enjoyed near universal support from organized labor, a seemingly significant advantage in a low-turnout August primary, and the endorsement of Harrington. Tom Dimond was backed by influential St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry, whose mother once held the Senate seat, as well as House District 67B Rep. Sheldon Johnson. By comparison, the most high-profile endorsement that Hawj could point to was the Sierra Club — not typically a major player in legislative races.
But when the primary votes were tallied, Hawj emerged with a convincing victory, defeating Humphrey by 5 percentage points. Dimond finished a distant third.
Hawj’s success can partly be explained by one distinct advantage he had this year: He was the only candidate of Hmong descent in the race. Two years ago he was among four Hmong challengers in the mix. They took a combined 42 percent of the vote in 2010, but none of them came close to Harrington. This time around, two of the candidates from 2010, Vang Lor and Cha Yang, endorsed Hawj. The other former Hmong candidate, Chai Lee, supported Humphrey.
“I think definitely it has something to do with having one Hmong American [candidate],” said Dai Thao, a DFL activist who worked on Fawj’s campaign, of his success. “I think that really helped create clarity for the community.”
Lantry points out that Hawj’s strategy was no different from that of other candidates trying to win office for the first time. “He went to his base. That’s what we do,” Lantry said. “When you first run, you go to your base. It’s friends and family. You make sure that the folks who know you the best, who believe in you the most, feel compelled to support your candidacy. That’s exactly what he did.”
Veteran SD 67 DFL activist Jane Prince views Hawj’s victory as a triumph of grassroots organizing. “It was kind of a heartening outcome,” Prince said. “I think the fact that elected officials didn’t have coattails was interesting, and that Foung really, really did a masterful job of turning out the vote.”
Hmong financial support
The strength of Hawj’s support in the Hmong community is partially reflected in his campaign finance report. He raised roughly $31,000, among the largest hauls in the state and more than his two rivals combined. The overwhelming majority of contributors listed on Hawj’s campaign finance report have Hmong surnames. For instance, 23 donors with the last name Her contributed a total of $5,460 to his campaign.
Hawj’s ability to galvanize his supporters is also reflected in the results from some of the densely populated precincts that provided his margin of victory. In the two precincts spanning from E. 7th St. to Maryland Ave. and from White Bear Avenue to Earl St., Hawj picked up 325 votes. That’s more than twice as many as his two rivals combined. In some instances, voters seemingly showed up solely to vote for Hawj. In those same two precincts, for instance, the total number of votes cast in the U.S. Senate DFL primary was 264, while the 4th Congressional District DFL contest drew 261 votes. In other words, Hawj got more votes than Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and their DFL rivals in those precincts.
Lantry points out that down-ballot races almost always attract fewer votes than the more high-profile contests. “That just belies what has been the trend forever,” she said.
But Avi Viswanathan, a DFL activist who ran for the SD 67 seat in 2010, says that Hawj’s support wasn’t limited to the Hmong community. He believes the candidate was also successful in reaching out to other immigrant communities, primarily Latinos and Somalis, that constitute a burgeoning presence on the East Side. “He used the diversity of the East Side as a strength,” Viswanathan said. “That was a huge difference maker for him.”
Presuming that Hawj survives the general election in an overwhelmingly DFL district, he will become the only legislator of Hmong descent at the Capitol. But SD 67 has had Hmong representation before. In 2002 Mee Moua became the first person of Hmong descent in the country to win a state legislative contest. That race played out along the same lines as this year’s: There was no DFL-endorsed candidate, leaving the primary contest wide-open. State Rep. Tim Mahoney was backed by the previous occupant of the seat, Randy Kelly, whose departure to serve as mayor of St. Paul prompted the special election. But Moua ultimately won a four-way DFL primary, defeating Mahoney by 5 percentage points. Moua was joined at the Capitol by Cy Thao in 2003. But both retired in 2010.
Hawj is familiar with that recent political history: He made a documentary film about Moua’s historic campaign, called “The Time is Right for Mee.” Hawj also shares with Moua and many other Hmong immigrants the experience of having emigrated from Laos as a child. Lantry says that viewpoint will be important at the Capitol. “Sometimes folks think, well, when my great, great grandfather emigrated from Poland, or wherever, that somehow that’s [comparable] to the situation today,” Lantry said.”I think somebody needs to remind folks what it is like to do that in today’s world.”