Nelsie Yang’s 3-year-old niece was at her side when she learned that she’d been elected to the St. Paul City Council, after eight hours of ballot counting and 18 months of campaigning.
“I’m just so happy she’s here,” Yang said after her victory in the Sixth Ward race was called Friday. “When I was 3 years old, I never would have imagined myself being here.”
Two years out of college, Yang doesn’t have to imagine it anymore. At 24, she has already demonstrated a keen sense for building political power — and will make history when she is sworn in as the youngest St. Paul council member and the first Hmong woman to hold a seat on the seven-member body. She won the seat, which former Council Member Dan Bostrom held for more than two decades, with nearly 60% of ranked-choice votes.
Yang was the first candidate to enter the Sixth Ward race in July 2018 — when she was 23 — months before Bostrom announced he was retiring a year before the end of his term. In the time since, her ability to raise funds and build a supporter network has been more on par with incumbents than with other challengers.
Yang led fundraising in the Sixth Ward race, bringing in about $96,000 over the course of her campaign. Part of the reason for that, she said, was she needed enough money to pay her campaign staffers at least $15 an hour.
“I just saw her, and see her, as someone who is going to bring just a whole new lifetime of engagement to a ward that has been often so disengaged by their council member,” said Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson, who had just taken office in the Fourth Ward when Yang called to tell her she was running for the Sixth Ward seat. “It’s just a new day for our city.”
Nelson and Yang will be the only women of color on the council, and the only renters. Both have backgrounds in community organizing and have already known each other for a few years, Nelson said.
Yang is on staff at TakeAction Minnesota, where she works on criminal justice reform and renters’ rights at both the state and local levels. She already got a taste of constituent service in February, when she helped get the heat fixed at a St. Paul public housing building after a resident who had seen her campaign flier called her for help.
TakeAction endorsed both Nelson and Yang, and in recent months helped with Yang’s campaign operations, said Kenza Hadj-Moussa, a spokeswoman for the organization.
“What we’ve been lacking in general in our politics is politicians in office who are going to listen and be really connected to the community, and have two-way communication, and see themselves as not being just decisionmakers for their district or their ward but really the voice of the people,” she said. “To do that effectively you have to be rooted in the community, and that’s what Nelsie’s going to be able to do.”
When Yang reflects on her campaign or describes her vision for the next four years, it’s almost always in the context of other people — whether she’s talking about getting residents involved in planning for the Hillcrest Golf Club site or remembering the challenges her family overcame before landing in St. Paul.
Yang was born in Duluth, the daughter of refugees and the youngest of five children. She grew up in north Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park, where her family lost their house to foreclosure just two days before her high school graduation. They ended up in St. Paul, where much of their extended family was already living, Yang said.
St. Paul’s diverse neighborhoods “always felt more like home,” she said. “I really love this community.”
Yang attended Minnesota State University, Mankato and got involved in local politics while in school. She got her start volunteering for St. Paul Council Member Dai Thao, and went on to work on local, state and national races. In 2016, she was a national delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and in 2017 she led communications for Marny Xiong’s successful school board campaign.
The support that Yang had in her council bid — from TakeAction, from the local Hmong clan system — was key to her success as a candidate, said Terri Thao, who finished second in the Sixth Ward race. Thao is a program director at the nonprofit Nexus Community Partners.
“You have to realize the networks that she already strategically and intentionally built in,” Terri Thao said. “So that’s why I knew it would be a race between, frankly, me and her.”
Terri Thao won about 40% of ranked-choice votes. Four other candidates ran for the Sixth Ward seat, including interim Council Member Kassim Busuri, who the council appointed to serve the final year of Bostrom’s term. Busuri pledged during the interim application process that he would not run in the November election, but he did anyway. He finished a distant fourth in first-choice votes, with 7%.
Council members hold four-year terms. Yang will be sworn in Jan. 7 and serve through 2024.
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509