Mee Moua was 32 and a virtual unknown when she won a special election in 2002 as a Democrat to represent St. Paul's blue-collar East Side in the state Senate.
Moua will always be remembered as the nation's first Hmong-American elected to a state legislature. But looking back, she thinks that the appeal of her historic win touched on something much broader.
"In the deepest part of our hearts, we all love a great American Dream story," she said.
A refugee girl from the mountains of Laos, Mous settled in the Midwest, joined the Girl Scouts and the debate club, and studied her way to the Ivy League at Brown University. Immigrants -- and the children of immigrants -- tend to relate the most to her experience, she said.
HMONG PRESENCE AT CAPITOL COULD DISAPPEAR
When she was followed by State Rep. Cy Thao, Hmong Minnesotans could proudly point to two of their own holding office at the Capitol.
Now that the two Democrats have decided not to run for re-election this fall, the number of Hmong-American lawmakers could dwindle to zero.
Moua said that since she announced her decision not to seek re-election, some Asians have expressed their disappointment. She understands the pull of identity politics -- how constituents feel empowered when someone in power looks like them or speaks a shared language.
"When people come to the Capitol, there will no longer be a short Asian-American woman kind of bopping around," she said.
Over the eight years that Moua has been in office, the novelty of Hmong Minnesotans in politics has worn off. Her younger sister, Vallay Varro, was elected last year to the St. Paul Public School board, serving alongside another Hmong-American woman.
Moua says the press didn't turn her sister's ethnicity into a headline.
"It was remarkable to me how unremarkable it was," Moua said. "It's actually become mainstream to have Asian-American and Hmong-American candidates to run for these offices. And it's now no longer unusual or out of the ordinary that they win."
Still, Moua and Thao, also from St. Paul, haven't always gotten the full support of the Hmong community in Minnesota. Thao said other Hmong-Americans are constantly challenging their authority.
That much was clear in 2007, when Thao and Moua went on a fact-finding trip to Thailand to investigate the mass desecration of Hmong graves, only to be followed by a separate Twin Cities delegation comprised of competing community advocates.
"There's this sibling rivalry that gets pretty vicious in the end," Thao said.
BROUGHT VALUABLE PERSPECTIVE TO LEGISLATURE
Moua's legislative record hasn't been dominated by Hmong issues. But some say Moua did bring a singular perspective to the job of chairing the powerful judiciary committee.
"Senator Moua always had a focus on whether or not an individual's rights were abused due to the color of their skin," said state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.
Limmer, the ranking minority member of the committee, said he is as conservative as Moua is liberal but always found her to be open-minded.
Yet Moua made waves with some law-enforcement officials this year when she proposed legislation that would ban police departments from sharing secret files on gang members and activities. Moua said she had concerns about racial profiling, especially of young African-Americans who she says could be entered into the database simply for being photographed with a known gang member. The proposal came after a series of scandals involving the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force.
"So she saw abuse in law enforcement, and I think that's why she wrote the bills she did," Limmer said. "Was it an overreach? Hmm. Some people might say so, but you could understand where she was coming from."
Some law-enforcement officials, though, painted Moua as a gang sympathizer. And Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at the time that Moua was overreacting to isolated problems with the strike force.
"I think that overreaction has caused her to introduce reckless legislation that will jeopardize the safety of citizens, officers and case prosecutions," Fletcher said.
Moua said she was taken aback by the reaction from law enforcement.
"They wanted to make this about cops vs. dangerous criminals," she said. "But the actuality is it's about cops vs. people in the community who haven't done anything [wrong] and who were being profiled in these databases."
Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight said Moua has been known to question police practices -- which may have irked some law enforcement officials.
"While sometimes some of my peers had some frustrations, I thought she was very healthy for the global approach to law enforcement, and the balance with community and citizens' rights and fairness," Knight said.
"ANCHOR" FOR FAMILY
Moua said her decision to retire has nothing to do with the criticism. Her reasons were more personal -- and culminated with the death of her mother-in-law last summer. Sai Yang helped care for Moua's three children, and after her death Moua and her husband began to feel the pressures of juggling her legislative job and raising a family.
"Her absence really made it so clear and crisp how much of a role she played in creating a stable anchor for my children and for my whole family," Moua said.
Moua said she needs to be that anchor -- while continuing to provide for her family.
"I'm trying to find a job that will accommodate my desire to be able to be a good Girl Scout mom, a Boy Scout mom, and a softball mom," she said.
Moua, an attorney, said she's considering careers in philanthropy, civic engagement, and consulting, and that she's open to moving across the country or even abroad. But Moua said she hasn't ruled out a return one day to politics.
The trail she blazed to the Capitol may lead other Hmong-Americans on the same journey. In a field of nine candidates in the Senate race to replace her, four are of Hmong descent.
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