After Moua's departure, a crowded DFL primary emerges in St. Paul

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — A state Senate primary on St. Paul's East Side is shaping up to be a political battle royale.

Nine DFL candidates are competing for the chance to run for the District 67 seat being vacated by DFL Sen. Mee Moua.

Moua surprised everyone in May when she announced plans to retire from the office she has held since 2002. Her departure and the lack of a DFL endorsement left the field wide open.

The nine candidates competing for the DFL nomination to represent the culturally diverse Senate district include four Hmong, two Caucasian, one Indian-American and two African-American candidates - ranging in age from 23 to 66.

They are John Harrington, Foung Hawj, Tom Hilber, Chai Lee, Vang Lor, Jim McGowan, Trayshana Thomas, Avi Viswanathan and Cha Yang.

Of all the candidates, Harrington, the former St. Paul Police Chief, probably has the most name recognition.

Harrington, 54, said if he's elected he plans to continue working to improve public safety, but he said that won't be the only issue he focuses on.

"I think a job is probably the best crime prevention that you can get," he said. "So it's crime reduction, it is education and jobs that are really the three big points of my campaign."

Some have questioned Harrington's Democratic credentials because of his support for George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, but he said he quickly changed his view about Bush and DFL voters have no reason to doubt him.

"If you look at the body of work and what I have worked on and the things that I have accomplished they all fit with the DFL," he said.

Trayshana Thomas, 33, is the only woman in the field. The single mom is on leave from Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison's office where she works as an executive assistant. She didn't return calls seeking comment, but she has said that unemployment is her biggest issue.

Candidate Jim McGowan, 51, has a background in health care advocacy, but said if he's elected he'll also focus on the economy. He said the state budget deficit is a top concern.

"It's affecting peoples' ability to have a job and to stay in their home and that's hitting the East Side hard," McGowan said. "So regardless of whatever other issues I would want to work on, that has got to be the focus."

McGowan said his years of experience working with state government make him most qualified to represent the district.

Avi Viswanathan, 28, has the backing of St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry and said he has a plan to help people open and grow businesses in the district.

"Lowering higher education costs and making sure that people have access to funds," he said. "I have helped people facing foreclosure, which is a big issue across the east side of St. Paul."

Viswanathan has worked for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and the Dayton's Bluff Community Council.

Media producer Foung Hawj, 44, is one of the four Hmong candidates.

"There is a need for my God-given talent to bring people together so I might as well do it and serve the community and the neighborhood at the personal level and to serve the people," Hawj said.

Hmong Today Editor Wameng Moua said Hawj has earned a lot of respect among some Hmong community leaders.

"He has really been involved over the last 15 or 20 years," Wameng Moua said. "Of all the candidates there, all nine, he is actually the one that has been involved in all sorts of things from environmental issues to police issues."

He said that history might give him an edge over the other Hmong candidates, but with four in the race the vote is likely to split.

But another candidate, Vang Lor, is said to have support from many of the traditional Hmong clan leaders, each of whom has the potential to mobilize hundreds of voters on election day. Lor also has the endorsement of progressive group TakeAction Minnesota.

"This seat is not going to be my seat," Lor said. "This seat is our seat, it belongs to the people on the east side."

If elected, Lor said he plans to make education a central issue.

State Sen. Mee MouaSo far, Sen. Mee Moua has abstained from supporting any of the candidates. The first Hmong-American state legislator acknowledges her legacy, but said the winner doesn't have to be Hmong to represent Hmong residents on the East Side.

"The way that they conduct their representation should be such that the Hmong-American community does not feel the absence of that representation," she said.

Moua said she'll support whoever wins the primary and hopes the stiff competition will push the candidates to distinguish themselves between now and Tuesday.

"For the majority of the hardworking paycheck-to-paycheck people on the east side of St. Paul, they want to feel respected," she said. "My recommendation [to] the candidates [is] ... it's better to not rest on the endorsements, but to really roll up your sleeves and go out there and work hard for the vote of the people."

Whoever wins the DFL primary has the chance at a two-year term in November.


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