Thao will be first Hmong to serve on City Council

Photo by Jenny Kirk Kou Thao has been appointed to a one-year term to the Tracy City Council. He is the first Hmong to serve on the Tracy council. Thao is pictured outside the United Community Action Partnership office in Marshall where he works as a homeless youth caseworker.

TRACY — It started out as a joke between friends, newly appointed Tracy City Councilman Kou Thao said.

“Because of the increasing percentage of Hmong population in Tracy, we kidded that one of us would eventually have to run for city council,” Thao said Friday. “When this opportunity arose, I just put my name in.”

It came as a surprise to Thao that he was selected from a list of several candidates at the last city council meeting to fulfill the one year remaining on resigned councilman Bill Chukuske’s term. The term will expire Jan. 14, 2019.

Making history, Thao will be the first Hmong to serve on the Tracy City Council.

“I’ve only been to one council meeting and that was a few years ago,” he said. “I have not been keeping up other than reading the newspaper.”

Thao added that he is really excited for and honored by this opportunity.

“I’m excited to learn all about it,” he said. “It should be an interesting one year journey and hopefully many more years, too.”

Thao admits that it may be too early to tell if he will want to run for a full term come November.

“I haven’t even been sworn in yet,” he said. “It’s not even real, yet. I’ll have a better idea after a few months.”

Thao’s swearing in ceremony is scheduled for tonight’s Tracy City Council meeting.

Knowing only what has been in the papers about the reasons behind Chukuske’s resignation, that of “petty attacks” by citizens, Thao is still excited at the opportunity to serve his community in this capacity.

“I don’t really know what to expect, but I am very, very excited,” Thao said. “I was on a church youth council for a few years, but I don’t know how relatable that will be.”

Thao knows there is training available for newly-elected council persons.

“I was visiting with Shane Daniels (interim city administrator), and he said there would be some training opportunities,” Thao said. “I want to go because I still have a lot to learn.”

Thao is the homeless youth case worker at United Community Action Partnership in Marshall which keeps him in-the-know regarding countywide projects and events.

His day job has trained him to be flexible and open-minded, qualities that could transfer to the position of city councilman, he said.

“I think that for all towns in southwest Minnesota, we’re all trying to stay afloat,” he said. “I don’t have any specific goals, I just want to add on, to continue to grow Tracy in whatever ways we can.”

His wife, Khou Lor, is also active in community service. The two of them are members of PUSH (Project Uniting Southwest Hmong), which is actively pursuing a Hmong Community Center for Tracy.

Thao realizes that when the time comes for the city council to vote on permits and other activities proposed by PUSH, he will have to declare his conflict of interest.

“That’s why there is a rule about it — to help regulate things like that,” he said. He also said there should be a penalty for not observing it.

“I may have to ease out of that committee (PUSH) when I’m on the council,” he said. “However, the community center would be a place to showcase our history, display our clothing and historical artifacts.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the Hmong culture could go there, and Hmong who want to learn more about U.S. and Minnesota laws would also go there to learn, he said.

Another item Thao said he would have to declare conflict of interest on would be anything regarding United Community Action Partnership, such as small agency loans, because of his work connection.

Thao came to Minnesota from a refugee-based area in California where there were 60-70 percent minority.

He was in seventh grade in 1995 when he moved to Tracy.

It was a culture shock, he said, coming to a town where 99 percent of the population is Caucasian.

Kou Thao and Khou Lor have one daughter named Willow who is 18 months old. Khou Lor works at the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership in Slayton.