The New Guard

New face of the East Side? Mee Moua hopes to replace Randy Kelly in the state senate.
Diana Watters

In politics on the East Side of St. Paul, neighborhood ties are as important as political views. Politicians are as likely to tout their high school alma mater on the stump as they are their opinions regarding school vouchers. The phrase born and raised on the East Side is political gravy.

Mee Moua is not quite a native East Sider. She was born in Laos, spent her early childhood in a refugee camp in Thailand, and only arrived in Minnesota in 1988. In fact, the 32-year-old lawyer moved to the East Side just four years ago. "It's just not possible that I could've been born on the East Side," Moua concedes. "Physically, I can't have that claim."

But that doesn't mean Moua is conceding the contest of deepest neighborhood ties in her bid to replace mayor-elect Randy Kelly as the state senator representing the area. "Do I have deep roots on the East Side? Yes, I do," she maintains. "All of my family members live on the East Side. We own homes on the East Side. My husband has a business on the East Side. My son was born on the East Side."

Moua may be new to the neighborhood, but she has quickly learned the political turf. Grab her a plate of Yarusso Brothers spaghetti and reserve her a mug at Schweitz Saloon.

Since Kelly claimed victory, it seems every East Side resident who ever dreamed of running for political office has been floated as a possible candidate to fill his vacant senate seat. Everyone from current and former state representatives to Kelly's not-yet-drinking-age son Ryan has been rumored to be chumming the political waters. Moua is one of the first to publicly emerge from the scrum.

Because of the pending legislative session, which begins on January 29, the campaign battle will be brief. The specially called Democrat-Farmer-Labor party endorsing convention is expected to take place by mid-December. With this accelerated time frame--and with the news media largely preoccupied by the war on terrorism, a sagging economy, and the looming death of the Minnesota Twins--candidates will have little opportunity to sway voters.

"Whoever gets the DFL endorsement, if there's an endorsement, would definitely have the best chance of winning," notes former state Rep. Steve Trimble (DFL-St. Paul), who himself is weighing a run for the senate seat. "There's not a lot of time to develop name recognition."

Moua's name may not be familiar to many voters, but she is one candidate who will have little problem carving a distinct identity for herself. In 1997 she became one of the first Hmong Americans to pass the bar exam. If elected to the senate, she would become the first person of Hmong descent in the nation to hold elected state office.

Despite her relative youth, Moua has long had her eyes on public office. She has contemplated running for the state Legislature before, and last year she weighed the idea of running for the late congressman Bruce Vento's seat. "Other opportunities have come up in the past and I've always felt that there were certain elements in my personal life that would not be helpful or that could make a race difficult," Moua says, noting that she was pregnant with her now two-year-old son when Vento's seat opened up. "On a personal level, everything seems to be right now."

Since election night she has been busy assembling a campaign committee, making calls to delegates to the DFL endorsing convention, and preparing literature. One early supporter is state Rep. Sheldon Johnson (DFL-St. Paul). "I think it's time for some diversity down at the state capitol, and I think Mee is just an excellent example of the type of candidate for the seat at this time," says Johnson, who himself briefly flirted with running for the senate post. "She's Hmong American, she's sharp, she's an important member of the community."

City council member Kathy Lantry, whose Seventh Ward overlaps the contested senate district, has not decided whom to support in the race. "My experience with [Moua] is, she's smart as a whip and will be a very strong candidate. No doubt in my mind," Lantry says.

In an election that will likely hinge on a few hundred votes, Moua hopes to gain an edge by enticing immigrant voters to the polls. In recent years the East Side--long a bastion of the white working class--has become home to an increasing number of Hmong immigrants, vying with Frogtown as a center for the community. In addition, a new law--which allows Hmong veterans who fought on behalf of the U.S. during the Vietnam War, and their spouses, to take the United States citizenship test in their native tongue--has led to a flood of newly eligible voters. "That's one of my goals for wanting to do this," Moua says. "In the past, when you look at other Hmong candidates who have run and have done a good job of reaching out to people, they have been able to bring out voters."

Despite Moua's established ties to the Hmong community, other candidates are not conceding the Asian vote. "I think she'll be a strong candidate," allows state Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul) who is running for the senate seat. "That doesn't mean she's going to be the only one with Asian Pacific support. I've got a number of people who have committed to me of Asian Pacific descent."

Moua faces other significant obstacles in winning the senate seat. For one thing, she backed city-council member Jay Benanav over native-son Kelly in the mayoral campaign. A key factor in the senate race will be the mayor-elect's endorsement--if he makes one. Moua takes pains to make clear that her support of Benanav was not a condemnation of Kelly. She points out that initially she supported First Ward council member Jerry Blakey for mayor and only switched to the Benanav camp after he secured the DFL endorsement. "I have tremendous respect for Randy Kelly," she states. "I love the fact that he's a fighter for St. Paul."

Some political observers also question whether Moua has the experience to step into a legislative session that is expected to be excruciating because of looming budget shortfalls and the division of power between three political parties. Former state Rep. Jim Farrell (DFL-St. Paul) notes that the East Side's state delegation is already lacking in legislative expertise. "Right now we go into a situation where Mahoney has three years' experience, Johnson has one, and the senator would have zero," says Farrell, who is encouraging former Rep. Trimble to run for the senate seat.

He further argues that knowledge of the back halls of the capitol will be particularly crucial in the upcoming session, which will focus primarily on bonding issues. "They have no idea the politics that go behind the bonding bill," Farrell argues of Moua and other political neophytes vying for the senate seat. "They'll get blown right out of the water." For example, during the upcoming session St. Paul lawmakers will be seeking funds to build a library at Metropolitan State University, located just east of downtown, as well as money for the redevelopment of the Phalen Corridor.

Naturally Moua scoffs at the assertion that she doesn't have the acumen to bring home the legislative bacon for the East Side--a role that Kelly was particularly renowned for. Likewise, she plays down the fact that she would become the first Hmong American to hold state elected office. "For me, if that becomes the case, that's the icing on the cake," she says. "What really concerns me is the ability to represent all the citizens on the East Side."

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