Although not elected, Pakou Hang made big change because of the political campaign she ran last fall. Photo by Yeng Lor.
“We will never win if we don’t run. We have to try.” That is the take of Pakou Hang after losing the vote count in her election bid for a city council seat in St. Paul. She may not have won the election but she scored big in community building, engagement, outreach, skill building and setting a high bar for campaigns to follow.
Hang is a role model for women thinking of working on a campaign or being the candidate, of running a smart, analytical campaign that also has heart and soul. Data shows that as we get closer to equal gender representation in offices, the priorities shift and how we go at the issues changes.
Eighty-eight percent of Hang’s campaign volunteers had never worked on a campaign before. They were Hmong and white, college students and retired people. They were recent immigrants and young professionals. “We taught skills. We had a commitment to teaching and growing the knowledge base,” Hang said. And they are stronger for having learned about caucuses, National Night Out, district councils, block parties and how to talk with their neighbors about issues important to their communities. “It created a ripple effect,” Hang said.
Hang’s parents and six siblings were an important part of the campaign process. “My family was my rock. I was so lucky. We are a big family and we are a very close family. We grew up poor. We had to work together to have everything be OK in the family.”
Many of the hundreds of campaign workers-including the campaign managers, communications directors, the finance manager, the Hmong outreach team-were women. Their accomplishments are impressive: They turned out five times as many voters as the total number of voters in the last election and held 28 meet-the-candidate events in people’s homes. In the last five days of the campaign, 400 volunteers called or doorknocked. They made contact with more than 10,000 voters, and mailed 1,000 handwritten postcards. Hang’s candidacy stretched the public’s perception of what a candidate and office holder looks like. “You would not believe how many times I would be asked, ‘Do you have children?’ ‘Aren’t you married?'” In her ward being a single woman without kids set her apart. For many voters that kind of candidate was strange, uncomfortable or new.
Hang’s advice for women thinking of running for office: “Get some training through the White House Project or Wellstone Action. Surround yourself with people you trust fundamentally [and] have a best friend in the campaign, someone who is involved but not the manager, someone you can reflect with, someone to help keep your spirit intact. Our spirits are so important to us.”
In reflecting on why her candidacy resonated with so many people, Hang said, “I listen to people and bring them together and we figure out a solution and people claim ownership.
“That is the kind of leader we need now.”