The city of Fresno, in the heart of California's Central Valley, is one of the nation's most diverse, home to some 90 ethnic groups.. Despite a historic population of Japanese-American farmers and Southeast Asian immigrants, no Asian-American has ever been elected to Fresno's city council. This month, a Hmong refugee born in Laos became the first. He won that position not only because of the Asian vote, but also by earning the support of the city's Latinos.
With his close-cropped hair and a wide smile, Blong Xiong, 37, is well-recognized in Fresno's Hmong community. He's a former court interpreter and investigator in the public defender's office. Born in Laos, but raised in the U.S. since he was five, he is part of the first generation of Southeast Asian refugees that's making the inroads into politics.
Xiong's job for the last six years at the Center for New Americans has been to help Fresno's non-English speaking community get the services they need. And he says, that's exactly what he plans to continue do as a full-time City Council member.
When he took the dais for the first time earlier this month in the City Council chambers, Xiong made sure Fresno's Hmong community, one of the largest in the nation, knew it was welcome at City Hall. "I might get a little bit emotional up here, so please forgive me," he asked the crowd. "I have some guests that are here that may not speak English. If everyone would indulge me, I would like to welcome them here to the City of Fresno and to our Hall. Excuse me for a second." His voice broke, and he had to take off his glasses to wipe away tears as he thanked his supporters in Hmong.
Among those listening and nodding their heads proudly as Xiong took the oath of office were Hmong elders, and Hmong police officers and teachers who'd taken the morning off from work to watch his inauguration. But they weren't the only ones applauding Xiong's inauguration. A strong contingent of Latino voters was in the audience and the new councilman had a message for them, too.
"It is important for me to be a public servant," he told them. "You have my commitment, you have my dedication, to serve all of you to the best of my ability, to proactively listen, to engage, to build coalitions when possible, but most importantly, to listen to you, and represent you in the best way."
Building partnerships with the Latino community was a key strategy in Xiong's race, a tight run-off election for City Council. He knew he couldn't win without reaching out beyond the Hmong community. Only about 300 Hmong residents are registered to cast a ballot in his district.
Showing Latino voters he could represent them was key, Xiong says. They may not have crossed the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand, like he did, but they or their parents may have come across the Rio Grande from Mexico. He explains, "These are things we share as refugees, we share as immigrants, our life story, our struggles, and we understand whether we speak different languages or not. This country is great is because every immigrant, every refugee or everybody who calls this country home has given something back."
That message worked for Adi Martinez, a volunteer who knocked on hundreds of doors encouraging his neighbors to vote for Xiong. "There's this thought of politicians being unapproachable," he says. "Most people are like, well, they're over at city hall, they're over at the state capital. They're a million miles away, and Blong, he's like your neighbor, it feels like you can go up to him and discuss the latest issue about the weather, sports, anything."
And in fact, Xiong says he first connected with the Latino community when he joined a soccer league. Now his chief of staff is an immigrant from Mexico whose parents are farm workers.
Hmong refugees across the United States are celebrating Xiong's election. They hope he'll inspire a new generation of Southeast Asian leaders to run for office. In the meantime, Xiong says his first task will be to ensure all of his constituents, regardless of the language they speak, can come to him to talk about nuts and bolts city issues, like garbage pickup, traffic, and fixing potholes.