Moua: Gang of One

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The first-ever Hmong state legislator reflects on her decade at the Capitol

In 2002, Mee Moua became the first person of Hmong descent in the United States to be elected a state legislator. She survived a five-candidate DFL primary and won special election to a state Senate seat representing the East Side of St. Paul. The native of Laos then won re-election twice in the heavily Democratic district. But in the waning hours of this year’s legislative session, she unexpectedly announced that this would be her final term at the Capitol.

Moua was at the center of one of this year’s most contentious legislative debates. In the wake of revelations about misdeeds by cops assigned to the (since disbanded) Metro Gang Strike Force, she introduced legislation that would have prohibited police departments from maintaining databases of alleged gang members. Moua defended the proposal as a necessary check against unfair targeting of minority populations by officers.

But the legislation (and Moua) received fierce criticism from law enforcement interests and was ultimately scuttled. Instead the Legislature opted to set up a working group to further study the issue.

Capitol Report sat down with Moua at her office last Friday. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Capitol Report: You became the first person of Hmong descent in the country to be elected to a state legislature. Looking back, what’s the significance of that?

Mee Moua: To have the result as a historical marker is significant and it’s pretty cool. Hmong-American children, in the last 10 years, who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and really all across this country, grew up under a different reality. They grew up under a reality of having Sen. Mee Moua and Rep. Cy Thao at the state Capitol. It’s kind of like my children experiencing the election of Barack Obama. They’re going to grow up with that reality as part of their lives.

For the external community, I think the presence of myself, as well as Rep. Cy Thao and other Hmong elected officials, has offered a more complete picture. Previously there was a much more narrow view of the Hmong community — more ethnic, more marginalized. Our full participation in the electoral process has broadened the perceptions [to be] closer to the reality of what the Hmong American community represents.

Capitol Report: Was there any moment or event in particular that crystallized for you that it was time to go?

Moua: I came into this life through a very opportune moment. I didn’t design my career to become an elected official. It was just the right opportunity at the right time and it happened to me. When I got elected and I came here, I made a commitment to myself and to my husband that at the most I would be here 10 to 12 years. This year we kind of hit that decade mark.

One of the triggers for us, that reminded us about our 10-year, 12-year time table, was my mother-in-law’s passing last summer. She was very much the anchor in our family life. She was the stable force that was there for my children. Not that I was an absent mom, but during the legislative sessions those are some tough hours. The life that we lead, you easily could be doing fundraising events, every evening, Monday through Friday. And the weekends get even busier. When Mom was living with us, we could go to an event in the evening for an hour and a half and we know that Mom is taking care of the kids.

My husband and I just had a conversation. We said, we were always committed to the idea at the most of 10 to 12 years. We should dust that off and think about whether it’s time. Then when we started to really think about it and do the math, we just concluded that we have a 10-year-old. If we wanted maximum flexibility to re-orient our future, transitioning a fourth grader is a lot easier than transitioning a sixth grader, and that made the decision for us. We just think that it’s a really exciting time in our lives. We could end up staying here in Minnesota and being part of this community and that would be awesome. But we could end up in another state somewhere, or we could end up doing an international stint.

Capitol Report: Turning back to the legislative session, do you regret putting forward the bill that would have put in place a prohibition on criminal gang databases?

Moua: I don’t regret it at all. I think that the conversation had to take place. I think that it was a very productive conversation. At times I think we all could have been more grown up about the conversation. Because the whole intent of putting the bill out there was to test whether or not there was sufficient trust among the communities and the law enforcement agencies to talk about how to repair the relationship that is symbolically represented by these profiling databases.

The end product that came out of the conference committee, which is very different from my proposal, may not be the solution that I put on the table. But what I got out of the conference committee is that law enforcement made a commitment to be at the table for the conversation and that the communities of color, particularly the African American community, are comfortable and in fact like the idea of being part of a working group to shape that conversation.

Capitol Report: But there’s a long history, when people don’t want to deal with an issue at the Capitol, of forming a working group and creating a report that starts collecting dust the day it’s done. Why do you think this will be something other than that?

Moua: It could turn out to be that way. But I also think that because of the tenor and the tone of the conversation as we moved from my initial proposal to where we ended, I’m confident that the participants in this conversation are at the table with the best intentions and are at the table having been informed by the very crisp and clear conversations that led to that compromise.

Capitol Report: Some of the rhetoric during that debate was very heated and personal. You were accused of basically being on the side of the gang bangers. What do you think about that?

Moua: I think law enforcement did what law enforcement usually does, which is to overreact. I think it created a public backlash. Their behavior reaffirmed for the public the reason why there’s this mistrust of law enforcement. I thought that it was short-sighted on their part. My children’s reaction to it was interesting. My seven-year-old said, ‘Mommy, I don’t know what you’re doing at the Capitol, but there’s some name-calling going on, and that’s mean.’ For me that boiled down what that exchange really was about.

Capitol Report: What role do you think race played in that conversation?

Moua: My viewpoint is tainted by the fact that I’m a woman of color, interpreting the things that happen around me through that as one of the lenses. The way that I’m able to feel at peace with the issue is that the whole gang database conversation is more than just about the database. It is about a conversation that needs to continue. We can’t just, on an episode-by-episode basis, have these conversations because of a headline or because of an incident. There is a real tension [between] law enforcement and the communities. Whether that tension is because of good or bad behavior by the police, the reality is that that tension is there.

In my experience here at the Legislature, I’ve always found it to be amazingly short-sighted that law enforcement has consistently insisted that racial profiling — disproportionate application of law enforcement on communities of color — has all been pure perception and fabrication on the part of communities of color. At some point, when that is the stance that you take all the time, then it leads someone like me to say, ‘Isn’t there a single ounce of doubt in your mind that race might play some contributing factor?’ It’s that seed of doubt that builds trust. The experience I’ve had up here around this issue with law enforcement has always been, ‘Nope, we do our job. We do what we need to do. We protect the safety of the public. Whatever the community thinks about this is purely misperception on their part.’

Capitol Report: When your bill did finally come to the Senate floor, there were Republicans who were opposed to it. But there were also quite a few Democrats who spoke against it, and spoke against it in ways that didn’t necessarily reflect what was in the bill. What do you think about that?

Moua: I think the Republicans and the Democrats who were speaking out against specific provisions of that bill had reasons other than policy reasons for being opposed to it. That’s the reality sometimes of how the work gets done around here. If it all were always about good public policy, then there wouldn’t be so many opportunities for things to go wrong. But that entire debate was not about good public policy. That debate was about who was a better friend to law enforcement and who was going to come out of the legislative session and be able to go out and campaign with the full blessing and endorsement of the chiefs and the sheriffs associations. Because of that kind of dynamic and that kind of political context, the conversation wasn’t about good public policy.

Capitol Report: Are you going to back anyone for the SD 67 seat? Or play any role?

Moua: No. I’m blissfully unaware of all the things that are going on with regards to that race.

Capitol Report: Do you see yourself as having a political future in St. Paul?

Moua: If you had asked me that question in February of 2001, I would have said no. And yet, in November of 2001, I had a political future. Right now, I would say no. But I don’t know. If I continue to live here, I think there will always be that chance that there might be an opportunity that would pop up that I would consider. On the other hand, right now my plans are in such flux. I don’t know if I’m going to stay here and live here in Minnesota.

Capitol Report: Do you have any immediate plans at this time?

Moua: I’ve taken the last couple of months just to recover from the last legislative session, really enjoying some stress-free time with my kids. I feel like I have a little time yet before I really dig down and start the process of finding another job. I’m confident that something will surface. I just don’t know what that is.


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