When Hmong refugee Steve Ly was elected mayor of suburban Elk Grove – a part-time position that pays $9,400 a year – his Nov. 8 victory was celebrated worldwide.
His successful campaign to become the nation’s first Hmong mayor was backed by Hmong in Minnesota and Wisconsin, who contributed more than $10,000 to help him get elected.
“The Hmong in the U.S. have reached a milestone and they’re very happy,” said Ly, 43, who will preside over a suburb of more than 162,000 residents. “I’ve gotten messages from Hmong in China, France, South America. America, Canada, Australia and Southeast Asia.”
Ly, who fled communist Laos with his family when he was 4 years old, credited his father with fostering his interest in civic affairs.
“When me and my dad watched these great speeches by President Ronald Reagan on television, I was enthralled by politics but I didn’t see anyone similar to me,” Ly recalled. “Still, my my dad forced me to watch news all the time. I hated it. He said his greatest accomplishment was to become an American citizen in 1995, and he voted in every election until his death in 2011.”
Like many Hmong from Laos, Ly’s father, Youchao Ly, fought in the CIA’s secret war against the Lao and Vietnamese communists. He flew with the Ravens, U.S. Air Force pilots who spotted the North Vietnamese army in Laos and then directed bombing raids.
“He would tell me about how he would go on missions in the jungles of northern Laos to recover American pilots dead or alive before they fell into enemy hands,” Ly recalled. “He would remind me voting was why he fought for $5 a month.”
Youchao Ly and his brother led their families out of Laos one step ahead of the communists, Ly said. They landed in Gardena in 1976, then moved to Clovis in 1980, where they became migrant workers. The children spent summers and weekends picking tomatoes, sugar peas and strawberries from 4 a.m. to sundown.
Ly said he struggled in school, but with the help of an African American neighbor and dedicated classroom aides, he became the first member of his family to go to college. He graduated from UC Davis, where he worked his way through school as a janitor in the Memorial Union. He later graduated from the former Lorenzo Patiño Law School and works for the Sacramento County Board of Education, where he provides academic support and counseling to youths in juvenile hall.
During his years working in education, Ly said, he’s seen Hmong gangs that once terrorized Sacramento’s poor neighborhoods fade into history. “They’ve grown up, become fully acculturated and realize they can fight with words as opposed to their fists.”
Ly was first elected to the City Council in 2014, and served as vice mayor before winning the mayor’s post. His campaign focused on encouraging employers to locate in Elk Grove, completing road and transit projects, and developing a sense of community in Elk Grove’s newer neighborhoods.
On Wednesday, Ly will be sworn in as mayor of the seventh most diverse city in America. Outgoing Mayor Gary Davis, Ly’s political mentor, noted that more than 80 languages are spoken in Elk Grove schools. He said he expects that Ly will be a mayor for everyone.
“After a very divisive campaign, the ability to listen and collaborate is really important, and he’s proven he’s willing to meet with anyone and bring people together,” Davis said.
Ly, who finished first among seven candidates, came under intense fire during the race from Elk Grove gas station and convenience store developer Gil Moore, who has tangled with Davis. Moore wrote an opinion piece on local website ElkGroveNews.net citing court documents that say Ly was fired as executive director of the nonprofit Asian Resources Inc. for financial mismanagement in 2006. Ly and other Hmong managers subsequently filed an unsuccessful class action lawsuit claiming they’d been unfairly treated.
Ly is no stranger to tough campaigns. During his first run for the Elk Grove Unified School Board in 2002, Ly took on incumbent Jeanette J. Beach-Billingsly and made a rookie’s mistake, campaigning in Sacramento’s Asian neighborhoods – home to an estimated 20,000 Hmong – instead of concentrating on likely voters in Elk Grove. He also enlisted Hmong shamans to try to persuade the ancestor spirits to guide him to victory, but was still beaten soundly.
Ly, whose wife teaches in Elk Grove, made his political comeback in 2012. “Instead of sitting around and praying and hoping things change, we rolled up our sleeves and got things done,” he said.
Ly hired Mai Yang Vang, a woman from Oak Park who received her master’s degree in public health at UCLA, to serve as campaign manager for the 2012 campaign. She helped forge a multigenerational, multiethnic coalition known as “Ly’s army” that included Hmong teenagers from Fresno to Chico along with south Asians, Buddhists and Pacific islanders.
“This is bigger than Steve; it has really re-energized our generation to be involved in politics. We all won,” said Vang, who now serves on the Sacramento City Unified School Board.
In 2014, Ly’s grass-roots forces helped him win a seat on the Elk Grove City Council. In his mayoral race, Ly was accused of flip-flopping on the Wilton Rancheria’s proposed Elk Grove casino resort. Ly voted with the rest of the council to support the casino project, but then sent out a mailer that proclaimed his opposition. Inside, the mailer said the city didn’t have the power to stop the casino anyway, so he voted for the agreement because it came with financial payments to the city.
“I’ve seen casinos and gambling destroy lives, and as a father I will oppose gambling forever,” Ly said. “But we’re looking at 6,000 new jobs and $132 million for law enforcement, road impacts and the general fund. This was a vote to ensure the citizens of Elk Grove get their fair share.”
Ellen Garrison contributed to this report.