Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Example of Peng Her: Let's Find Ways to Support More Highly-Qualified Minority Candidates for Local Office

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming April 5th election, Madison citizens will once again find ourselves being represented by a Common Council that does not reflect our community's racial and cultural diversity. However, that is something we could do something about, if we set our minds to it, and dare to think in different ways about a political process that simply doesn’t represent a level playing field for candidates of color.

For the second time in recent years, I’ve been proud to support a run for office by my good friend Peng Her, current candidate for alder for Dist. 18 on Madison’s northside. Peng epitomizes the talented and dedicated kind of representation this area needs and deserves. And yet, I’ve often sensed a certain kind of double standard being applied to him.

Peng is known to many as a longtime advocate for social justice, a well known Hmong community leader, and former owner of the popular restaurant Taste of Asia. As a Hmong leader, Peng and his wife Mai Zong Vue are extraordinary bridge builders within the Hmong community, acting as cultural translators for Hmong elders, while helping a younger generation maintain links to their cultural heritage, despite the pressures to assimilate. Peng has shown the members of his community that it’s possible to remain true to Hmong culture and traditions, while also embracing a role in the community-at-large.

Peng brings those same bridge-building skills to the larger arena of his work. His diplomatic people-friendly skills and ability to think outside of traditional boxes have allowed him to lead on city and county committees, on neighborhood groups, and on a variety of coalitions and organizational boards. He uses these same skills to open dialogues between community organizers and business people, for example, across the lines that often divide us. As in all situations, Peng is using is own personal experience to relate to others. In recent community forums, he’s taken his experience with his restaurant as a means of explaining his empathy for the many obstacles that small businesses and other entrepreneurs are facing today.

Twenty years ago this election cycle, my good friend, African-American community leader Steve Braunginn, was running for county board in an uphill battle against the incumbent. As someone who had seen the powerful things that had happened locally when openly lesbian and gay candidates had been thrust into office in historic elections, I knew that my place was beside Steve, helping this highly-qualified man of conscience to win office as the first African-American representative on the Dane County Board. Steve fell just short of victory that year, and at the after-party, I presented him with a photograph I’d taken in the Himalayas two years before, of an unclimbed mountain.

For two years, that photo stood on top of Steve’s TV set, where he could see it each and every day. Two years later, Steve ran for office again, in a district with a negligible minority population. His key to victory was that his friends and neighbors saw something special in Steve. They weren’t voting for the African-American candidate out of liberal guilt or some other pretense—they were voting for the candidate whose life experience and vision were best suited for their future representative. Despite the odds, Steve climbed the mountain, adding a powerful voice for the voiceless on the county board.

Polling or conventional wisdom would have likely perpetuated the message that Steve’s candidacy was an unlikely one. And, ironically, one of the arguments made against Peng as he recently sought the endorsement of the local Democratic Party was the intangible and bias-prone perception that he was somehow not “a viable candidate.”

I can only reflect that had another historic candidate for office, Tammy Baldwin, been judged by the same standards in 1992 when she ran for state assembly, few would have foreseen her rise from underdog to victory in that pivotal election, perhaps some of their skepticism grounded in the notion that no open lesbian had ever achieved that high of an office. Had this perception of “lack of viability” been allowed to stand, we would have been denied an amazing public servant, and countless young people would have been deprived of a powerful role model.  (The same can be said of Russ Feingold, who was pulling only about 10 percent in the polls two weeks before his history-making victory in the September 1992 Democratic primary, which was followed by his come-from-behind victory that November.)

Peng Her is not running as “the Hmong candidate” in his aldermanic race. But his election to the city council would nonetheless have a significant impact on the lives of young Hmong people growing up in Madison, empowering them to know that they, too, could one day achieve elected office.

As was the case with Steve and Tammy, political pundits seem to have forgotten that it’s the people who ultimately decide who wins office, not the pollsters. And when given the choice of electing highly-respected and qualified truth speakers who also happen to be leaders of minority communities, voters will embrace those candidacies, defying both conventional wisdom and the countless obstacles of a far-from-level political playing field. Right now, however, local voters seldom have the choice of electing substantial numbers of people of color to local office, because we have few systems in place to support such candidacies.

My support for Peng is based on my experience seeing first hand how Peng has helped diverse community members from all walks of life work together in common cause, and is reflective of his extraordinary efforts to personally reach out to District 18 residents in recent weeks. I am also proud to have played some role in contributing to the election of almost three dozen open lesbian, gay, and bisexual candidates for office over the years, including Tammy’s election as the nation’s first open lesbian in Congress. Madison and Dane County lead the nation in this realm.

And yet, in the realm of electing qualified people of color to office, we lag far behind. In the years ahead, for the sake of our community, and for all of the children who would draw inspiration from the election of a great community leader like Peng, let’s work together to build support structures that lead to a more culturally and racially diverse group of local elected officials. Our future depends on it.

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