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Dai Thao Answers Questions for St Paul City Council

by Grace Kelly on July 2, 2013 · 2 comments

Dao Thao

Dai Thao is the third candidate answering a standard list of questions for all the candidates of Ward 1 for St Paul City Council. I requested brief answers, no more than 300 words.


The answer to even the first question shows a commitment to do more than just city council, to represent Ward 1 in other forums. I hope this encourages you to read more.


1) What do you think the job of city council person should accomplish?


A city council member should seek out the vision, values, goals, concerns, and brilliant ideas of the community. That council member should then create the opportunity for dialogue between community members and people with policy expertise to identify the best policy tools for advancing the community’s vision and achieving their goals. Policy experts should inform the discussion but not determine the outcome. The council member, privileging the opinion of community stakeholders, must choose the best course, taking into account the big picture. That person’s job then is to negotiate the hardest bargain they can on behalf of the community, in order to secure the greatest benefits. They should attempt to build up and credit the communities responsible for driving the change, depolarize and restore any relationships strained by the tension created by those efforts, and prepare for the next round. Often, they will have to do all of these things at once.


A city council member’s vision must go beyond the ward, however, since the quality of life of people in the ward can depend on conditions that are city-, metro-, and even state-wide. For example, the people in Ward 1 are some of the most transit-dependent residents in Minnesota. Yet, transit is managed by the Met Council. A city council member for Ward 1, therefore, must understand how metropolitan-wide transit planning, funding, and allocation works in order to advocate for his or her constituents’ needs. The council member must also be able to build strategic, progressive alliances with organizations and other politicians in order to make a metro-wide impact on policy.

2) What is your background? How does this background make you the better choice for city council person?


I have been shaped by my experiences as a community organizer with ISAIAH and TakeAction Minnesota. These experiences showed me the power a community can have when we build relationships, especially with those who are different from us. I have learned that, despite our differences, our destinies are linked. Organizing also taught me how power and decision-making works at the community and governmental level.


I was born in Laos and escaped the communist pogroms that were bent on wiping out all Hmong. I survived the bitter poverty of refugee camps in Thailand only to experience a new kind of poverty in the housing projects of North Minneapolis. Along the way, I lost dear family members, including my father. These experiences seared in me an unshakable commitment to the inviolable dignity of each human life. I learned how to survive and to admire the strength and creativity of survivors. And I gained an unquenchable passion to help people achieve a more dignified life.


I am also a father of three, a husband, and a member of the Ward 1 community of St. Paul. I am 100% committed to my community, because I know all the way down in my bones that my good and the good of my children depend on the good of my neighbors and their children.


3) What are the unique characteristics of your city council area?


Ward 1 of St. Paul is one of Minnesota’s most richly diverse communities. More languages are spoken here than just about anywhere else.


Ward 1 is the proud home of St. Paul’s great Rondo community, a mulch-generational community of African-American business owners, entrepreneurs, teachers and professors, activists, musicians, and churchgoers. It is the home of the oldest Black church in Minnesota, Pilgrim Baptist, founded the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation. It is also the home of Frogtown, the “Ellis Island” of St. Paul’s immigrant communities. Vietnamese, Somali, Ethiopian, Latino and many other immigrant communities first settled here before either branching out or setting down roots. Today, it is home to the largest community of Hmong people in the United States. Ward 1 also includes a diverse population of community-minded residents of European descent.


Ward 1 is centrally located in St. Paul. It hugs downtown and the State Capitol, straddles I-94 and University Avenue, sits atop Summit Avenue, and stretches to Lexington north of University Avenue and Snelling south of it. Despite this centrality, Ward 1 has been marginalized by past policy decisions. As a result, its people suffer disproportionately from poverty, poor health, lack of transit access, unemployment, and even fire casualties.


Nevertheless, Ward 1’s cultural and historical diversity are a source of extraordinary strength and promise. These can be seen in the businesses that gutted out the challenges of light construction, the spectacular musical and cultural festivals, new initiatives like Promise Neighborhood and the future Frogtown Farms, and the active community organizations that continue to push for positive change.


4) What three goals would you hope to accomplish as city council person?


First, I want to secure every possible benefit for Ward 1 residents, workers, and businesses from the development that is following Central Corridor light rail construction. There is already a good blueprint for these in the “Healthy Corridor for All” report prepared by ISAIAH, TakeAction Minnesota, and PolicyLink. This report was created by a community steering committee, assisted by a top-notch technical advisory panel. It is the model for how to make positive, community-led change. The community steering committee was grounded in real, active and accountable community organizations, which were then able to advocate for its recommendations. However, some policy tools were left on the table. I will pick them up on day one.


Second, I will ensure the city keeps its promise to provide additional resources to the Fire Department so it can provide both emergency fire and emergency medical service to Ward 1 residents. Currently, the department can only provide one or the other at a time. This is despite the fact that Ward 1 suffers more fire fatalities than any other ward in the city. If there’s a more blatant example of inequity than failing to provide sufficient resources to save lives during a fire, I don’t know what it is. The city promised the firefighters they’d fix this and I’ll make sure they keep that promise.


Third, I want to help Ward 1 communities connect and build power to make change together. There are more policy goals at stake for Ward 1 than can be accomplished by a single City Councilmember alone. To paraphrase the President (also a community organizer): Change doesn’t come from City Hall; it comes to City Hall. Helping to build a stronger community that is empowered to call its own shots would be the best accomplishment of all.

5) Since the city council involves negotiation of competing interests, please give an example where you successfully negotiated a difficult problem among multiple parties.


I recently helped negotiate a resolution to a complaint brought by the Hmong American community, 18 Clan Council, TakeAction Minnesota, Community Action Against Racism, and allies, against KDWB and its parent company Clear Channel Communications, one of the biggest media companies in the country. KDWB had played a racist and sexist song on the Dave Ryan show. This created an uproar in the community.
Clear Channel wouldn’t talk to us. They tried the usual divide and conquer tactic but we didn’t fall for it. We ran an action at their Minnesota headquarters in St. Louis Park, and the advertisers started pulling out. Eventually management from KDWB and Clear Channel met with us on our turf and our terms. Once at the table I made sure we didn’t torture them. Instead I created space for dialogue and healing. It was a longer process but both sides got to say what they needed to say—and, importantly, both sides got to hear what they needed to hear. In the end KDWB agreed to all of our demands except the firing of the DJ who wrote the song. We could have made it an issue and stalled negotiation, but in the end we made the right choice; a year later that DJ was let go. Now the Hmong American community and Clear Channel have a relationship of mutual interest. I am a listener and learner. Tension doesn’t scare me because I focus on the outcome objectives. And I am not the type of city council member who is out for blood. I am interested in partnership and sharing responsibility to solve problems. I think that’s the American way.

6) When do you think it is alright for the city council to give special financial consideration to a single business?


I don’t know that it is ever alright. Communities live or die on trust. Government floats or sinks with the trust the community breathes into it. The very idea that the rules don’t apply to everyone is corrosive to community and democracy. It raises legitimate suspicions of favoritism and good-old-boyism. This is particularly pervasive in Ward 1, where St. Paul’s track record in, for example, minority contracting has been, in the words of Mayor Coleman when he first ran for Mayor, “abysmal.” I know minority business owners and contractors who followed the rules, anticipated opportunity, trained and equipped their crews to capitalize on it, got first in line, bid lowest and got told to wait because the city wanted to work with contractors they “had relationships with.” Whenever there’s a single-business exception to a general rule, regulation, or requirement, it gives the community legitimate reason to believe that they’re not represented at the table and that deals are being made to benefit somebody else at their expense. So the circumstances would have to be absolutely transparent, absolutely unique, and absolutely free from even the appearance of influence. It would also, in my view, only be available, if at all, to a business that is truly owned and operated by a member of a historically disadvantaged community and be central to the health or well-being of that community. Even then, I’m not sure.


7) Please provide an example where you stood up for people or for rights against a powerful organization.


I’ve been organizing for racial and social justice since 2001 in St. Paul, so there are many. Most recently, I organized in the Hmong American Community with Amee Xiong of Minnesotans United for all Families and Liz Xiong of TakeAction Minnesota to defeat the Voter ID and Marriage Amendments. I highlight this example because we were up against traditional norms in the Hmong culture and the right wing’s war chest. I risked my long-standing relationship with conservative clan elders because I believe the freedom to love is as powerful as love itself—and that the pain I experienced through racial discrimination is the same kind of pain my GLBT friends were experiencing. It was a matter of clarifying for Hmong Americans that the two amendments were two separate issues but were meant to achieve one single outcome: the further marginalization of groups already accustomed to oppression. These are the kind of values and clarity I will bring to City Hall.

8) Please tell us why your campaign is better choice (i.e. more organized, works harder, works smarter) with specifics?


My campaign volunteers are community organizers and grassroots activists from ISAIAH, TakeAction Minnesota, Minnesotans United, OutFront Minnesota, Organizing Apprenticeship Project, and Protect Minnesota. Its chief strategist is Phil Steger of Peace in the Precincts. My whole campaign is about supporting my personal efforts to meet, listen to, and open a dialogue with voters. I was the only candidate with a visible campaign presence at the DFL City Convention. I was the first candidate to get Labor Endorsed. I’ve been out doorknocking and am out at least five nights a week talking to delegates. My field operation has teams of 7-10 volunteers doorknocking two nights a week. We will soon be adding a third night.


I am winning important endorsements from progressive leaders and organizations that have a direct stake in the community or who represent its progressive values. I’ve been endorsed by the Firefighters Local 21. I’m immensely proud that this heroic group of men and women who risk their lives every day to save ours see me as someone who represents their commitment to the people of Ward 1. I’ve also been endorsed by progressive wizard Richard Carlbom of Minnesotans United; DFL Feminist Caucus Chair Laura Nevitt; Community Organizer Sina Black; Vaughn Larry of Aurora St. Anthony NDC; Pastor Anita Hill of the Lutheran GLBT organization ReconcilingWorks; Protect Minnesota organizer LeRoy Duncan; OutFront Minnesota organizers Javen Swanson and Nick Kor; and Organizing Apprenticeship Project organizer Julia Freeman. I am approaching other key groups and individuals in ways that the political director of one powerful union just today called, “very interesting” and “unconventional.”


Finally, I have a very specific DFL delegate persuasion plan adapted from Peace in the Precincts, PeaceFirst!, and reNew Minnesota.

9) Please tell us how you as an elected official or your campaign would help other DFL endorsed candidates get into office?


I am committed to developing and advancing a new generation of DFL leaders. I was co-chair of DFL Representative Rena Moran’s successful run to become the first female African-American legislator from St. Paul. I would share my relationships, strategies, and insights with a DFL-endorsed candidate. I would make calls to strategically important voters or potential endorsers. I would co-host fundraisers or meet-and-greets. I would even knock on doors in especially important districts. I would also encourage the endorsee to make the community the focus of their campaign and to run their campaign in a way that empowers their community, so that, win-or-lose, the community is stronger and more capable of advancing its values than it was before they ran. Of course, I would then tell them to get absolutely clear about what they need to do to win, and to do it, since the community would be that much more empowered by having one of their own on the inside.

10) If you could magically fix one thing about the city of St Paul right now, what would that one thing be and why?


I would strive to change the ugly mindset, which few admit to but many possess, that the deep inequalities wounding our city are somehow the result of the natural order of things, or the inherent failings of one group or another, rather than the product of a long, self-reinforcing chain of policy decisions that have led to inequitable outcomes. Since policy decisions brought this inequality into being, different policy decisions can make things right. I would also work to dispel the notion that these inequalities are only a problem only for the disadvantaged, and not something that affects every single resident of St. Paul.


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