East Side Story

Pakou Hang hopes to tap new Hmong voters in her City Council campaign

Pakou Hang hopes to tap new Hmong voters in her City Council campaign

On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in October, Pakou Hang is knocking on doors in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. Election Day is less than a month out, and the 31-year-old City Council candidate can't afford to take any vote for granted.

An elderly man wearing khaki pants, a white T-shirt, and black suspenders answers his door. He initially seems wary of the uninvited guest, but warms up after Hang mentions that she previously worked for Paul Wellstone. "I voted for Paul," the man responds.

Hang has been banging on doors in Ward Six every day since June in her quest to unseat 12-year incumbent Dan Bostrom. She estimates that her campaign has visited 8,000 residences and made 30,000 phone calls.

To put these numbers into perspective, four years ago Bostrom collected just 1,504 votes while running unopposed. If elections were decided by measuring sweat equity, Hang would be a shoo-in.

But while Bostrom might lose the door-knocking contest, he's got plenty of other advantages. He's put in decades of service on the East Side as a police officer, school board member, and City Council representative. "Talk is relatively cheap," says Bostrom. "What have you really delivered for your neighborhood?"

Hang believes that the incumbent views her campaign with derision. "He thinks I'm a joke," she says. "He thinks I'm naive. That's okay, because that's exactly why he's out of touch."

The contest between Hang and Bostrom may be the most intriguing race in St. Paul this year. It pits the 67-year-old incumbent and East Side native against a determined, 31-year-old, fledgling Hmong politician. The incumbent has drawn support from the St. Paul Police Federation and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, while Hang has earned the backing of TakeAction Minnesota and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

Ward Six has traditionally been a white, working-class neighborhood with an electorate that skews more conservative than the city as a whole. But in recent years, the East Side has undergone significant demographic shifts. Between 1990 and 2000, the proportion of white residents in the area covered by the District Two Planning Council dropped from 85 to 60 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of Asian residents jumped from 7 to 17 percent, and the Hispanic and black populations more than doubled to roughly 10 percent each. In the 2000 census, more than a quarter of area residents reported speaking a language other than English at home, and the ward as a whole is now 43 percent minority.

Hang is part of that transformation. She left Thailand for the United States when she was just 15 days old. Her family initially settled in Georgia. "It was really hard for my folks," she says. "No one around them spoke Hmong." Within months, the family headed north to Providence, Rhode Island, to join Hang's grandparents. Then the family forged on to Appleton, Wisconsin. In 1987, they moved to Minnesota to open a Chinese restaurant in an Inver Grove Heights strip mall. They eventually closed the business, but stayed in Minnesota, attracted by its rapidly growing Hmong community.

Hang was a bright student who developed an interest in politics as an undergraduate at Yale. Her first taste of electoral success came in 2001, when she ran Mee Moua's successful 2001 campaign for state senator in a district that encompasses much of Ward Six. She subsequently worked as an organizer for Progressive Minnesota (now TakeAction Minnesota) and for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.

In the City Council campaign, she hopes to tap into the ward's burgeoning Hmong community for votes. The campaign has even put together a package of materials in a Ziploc bag to instruct Hmong residents how to cast a vote for Hang. The kits are modeled on similar bags Hmong families received when evacuating Thai refugee camps.

Hang criticizes Bostrom most pointedly for his vote in favor of a zoning change requested by developer Jerry Trooien for The Bridges of St. Paul. The proposed West Side project includes 1,150 residential units, 400,000 square feet of retail space, and a Westin Hotel. Trooien sought $125 million in financing from the city. Despite Bostrom's support, the zoning request was ultimately voted down by a 5-2 margin.

"You have all these challenges on the East Side and then you give $125 million to a billionaire?" Hang asks rhetorically. "That's such a clear misappropriation of our funds."

Bostrom says Hang is mischaracterizing his actions, pointing out that the vote was merely over a zoning request. But he also defends the development as an important potential source of jobs and property-tax revenue. "I think The Bridges project should continue to move along," Bostrom says. "It stands to be one of the biggest developments that the city has ever seen."

Bostrom's supporters emphasize his law enforcement bona fides and portray Hang as an ambitious activist who merely wants to use the City Council post as a stepping stone to higher office. "Dan wants to serve as a council member," says Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation. "He is a guy who listens to his community and wants to make the East Side a safer, better place to raise a family and to create business."

Which is why Hang has spent so much time knocking on doors. The next residence yields a Native American man with such a passion for the environment that he decorates his yard with wood chips and native plants instead of grass. "This whole area is going to be a wild habitat," he says.

Hang riffs on several environmental topics—wind turbines, Wal-Mart's green initiatives, hybrid police cars. She speaks at a clip suggesting one too many cups of coffee. "I'd love to have your support," she concludes.

Later, Hang explains that her experience working for Wellstone and Moua taught her to focus on the unglamorous work of educating voters. "You have to go back to the basics," she says. "There's a science to campaigns and there's a science to winning."