Protests mark election of Hmong community leader

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Voting began Tuesday for leadership of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association amid protests and cries of fraud from one of the candidates and his supporters.

The election marks the end of a tumultuous two years for the 29-year-old organization founded to help refugees assimilate and build lives in La Crosse. The strife over control of the group has even split family members.

Not set to end until Saturday, voting Tuesday had already exceeded turnout in most of the organization’s previous 16 elections, said executive director Xong Xiong.

For the Hmong community, the elections are on par with the spring recall elections. And they’re getting just as complicated and nasty.

The accusationsMai Vue, one of two candidates for board president, denounced the election in a news release that accuses incumbent president Gina Yang and other officers of attempting to steal the election through manipulation of the rules. Vue also alleges the election was scheduled on short notice after the Sept. 24 date was abruptly canceled and then rescheduled nine days before early voting was to begin.

At the heart of Vue’s complaints is a last-minute decision to allow voting by non-Asian members and to expand voting to two Minnesota counties.

Yang did not return messages left Tuesday, but Xiong said HMAA membership is open to anyone who supports the organization’s mission. She said voting traditionally has been restricted to Hmong and other Southeast Asians, but according to the group’s bylaws there’s no ethnic restriction on voting.

There are about 3,000 people of Hmong origin in La Crosse County. HMAA membership is a little less than 500, Xiong said. She estimates non-Asians account for about 2 percent of membership.

Xiong said the board was simply following its bylaws, but Vue contends that announcing that interpretation just two weeks before the election was unfair.

The decision also surprised the head of the group’s election committee, who resigned her post over it.

Pang Moua said she worked for nearly a year to set up the election but heard only four days before voting was to begin that the board wanted it open to Minnesota residents and non-Asians.

“If HMAA had their own vision, how come they didn’t tell me when they appointed me?” she said. “I’m not a mind reader.”

Xiong said the board directed Moua to follow the bylaws and she interpreted them according to tradition. Moua says that’s untrue.

Moua said she asked for at least six weeks to reorganize an election but was told it had to be held in October. That prompted her resignation.

“They made it impossible for me to fulfill my duty,” she said.

Because of the election committee’s resignation, Xiong said the HMAA asked the League of Women Voters to conduct the election.

Vue did not return messages from the Tribune, but running mate Moua Lee said they do not object to non-Asians voting, only to the timing of the decision and rescheduling the election on short notice.

“We feel they purposely tried to cancel the election so they can win,” she said. “Anybody can vote if that’s what the board wants, but at least allow them some time to campaign to those people.”

‘Bad blood’The protests are the culmination of a period of change and strife for the group, say its members.

Vang, elected to a two-year term in 2009, is the first woman to head the organization and one of the first female Hmong leaders in the state.

In April 2010, longtime executive director Thai Vue was fired amid a struggle to pay off about $560,000 in debt for the acquisition of the Hmong Cultural and Community Center. Vue has since sued the agency claiming breach of contract and defamation.

The HMAA was also sued this spring by a group of members who say the organization broke its contract with them when it asked for more money to pay off the loan.

“I think there’s no secret that there’s a split in the Hmong community since Thai Vue was replaced. There’s a little bit of bad blood,” said John Medinger, the former La Crosse mayor and longtime advisor to the Hmong community who led the fundraising effort to renovate the community center.

“This election will not heal all the wounds. It is an honest election, but they need to feel that.”


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