Makes California History
Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong makes time at the end of a busy day to meet with Txhawb to share his story and encourage other new Americans to be proactive in their search for the American Dream.
As a five year old boy, Blong Xiong had no idea he was a pioneer, as is often the case with pioneers. But this newly elected Fresno City Councilman has the distinction not only of being the first Asian-American ever elected to Fresno City Council, but he’s also the first Hmong-American ever to be elected to a City Council anywhere in California. Xiong, now in his mid-thirties, can look back and see just how far he and his family have come.
Xiong’s father had served as a military intelligence officer and had aided the United States in their fight to stop the advance of communism across Southeast Asia. When Laos was overtaken by communist rule in 1975, the Xiong family joined tens of thousands of others streaming across the boarder into Thailand, where young Xiong’s odyssey echoes that countless Southeast-Asian immigrants seeking political asylum in the U.S. during the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Sponsored by a church group in Kirksville, Missouri, the Xiongs found themselves smack-dab in the middle of “Middle America.” And while it may be true that the Xiongs had a lot to learn about becoming “Americans,” Americans had a lot to learn about the Xiongs and thousands of their Hmong compatriots. After all, just where did Americans think all of their good, old-fashioned, family values came from? From the home-country traditions of hundreds of cultures, steeped in generations of living. Historically, America has been seen as a land that promises “liberty and justice for all,” among other ideals. Knowledge of the American Dream is one thing; gaining access to it is something entirely different, but the Xiongs set out like many emigrants before them-conscious of their past and optimistic about their future and they wasted no time getting to work on making this country a place to call home.
Like many American families, the Xiongs moved a few times, always staying active in their community activities. Before moving to Fresno, they lived in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin for a time Xiong chose to remain in Fond du Lac to finish up his Bachelor’s of Science in Business Administration from Marian College before joining his parents, who had bought a supermarket which they still own today. Xiong continued his education in Fresno at National University, and received a Master’s in Business Administration. Xiong has made a career of public service, first working as an investigator for the Public Defender’s office of Fresno County before spending six years as the Deputy Director for Fresno’s Center for New Americans (FCNA). The FCNA is a nonprofit organization which helps immigrants and refugees transition into the community. During his tenure at the Center, Xiong spearheaded many successful projects, including the Hmong Dental Health Project, the Hmong Voters Education Project, the FCNA/ACS Employment Project, the Hmong Cancer Research Project, the Living Well Project, the Hmong Resettlement Health System Navigation Project the Hmong Family Care Project, the Telecom Project, and the FCNA’s Accelerated ESL Project (2). He was also instrumental in the resettlement of one of the largest refugee camps of his compatriots still remaining in Southeast Asia, the Watthamkrabok refugee camp which consisted of approximately 16,000 refugees.
“The groundwork for a job like that can only be made possible by the inclusion of the Hmong community here. I believe that people are inherently very generous. I found that not only within the Hmong community as we worked to place so many people…but I also found that to be true in my campaign as well,” Xiong told Txhawb.
When asked what made him decide to make a run for Fresno City Council, his face broke into a wide grin. “A mental lapse!” he said, laughing. “Seriously though-I felt like I’d done my homework. But, there’s really nothing that can prepare you for the experience-it’s eighteen months out of your life, twenty-four/seven.”
Without a doubt, Xiong’s great sense of humor and his ability to accentuate the positive have been keys in helping him build a proactive style of problem solving all too rare in the world of city politics, whether in Fresno or any other major city. The June primary had whittled down a rather large group of contenders to just two; Xiong had received a scant seven fewer votes than Scott Miller, a local business man. The two front-runners faced off in the November, 2006 election in a campaign that had been refreshingly cordial; a fact that didn’t escape the notice of the local media with one outlet saying that it could have very well been the “kindest political campaign in the United States”(1), a testament to the character of both men.
Xiong was first to announce that he’d seek the seat that would be vacated by outgoing Councilman Tom Boyajian, who had served the voters of west-central Fresno’s District One for as long as term-limit laws would allow. Xiong’s announcement came in late September of 2005, giving him more than a year to learn just what it was District One voters wanted and needed from their new City Councilman. Xiong hired campaign manager Mark Scozzar to aid him in the daunting task of communicating his message and intentions to the voters of Fresno’s District One. The biggest challenge Xiong may have faced was the ethnic make up of the district that he sought to represent. District One in west-central Fresno is populated, in large part, by Hispanics, many of whom immigrated to the United States from Mexico and other Latin American countries. It was an issue with which he dealt with early.
“It’s not like my name was Tom, Dick, or Harry…or anything else that might’ve sounded like something familiar. But, I did my utmost to communicate to many of the good people of District One that we shared something more important than a familiar name…many, many of us share the emigrant experience.”
“At the press conference at which I announced my candidacy, I tried to make it very clear that I was just a candidate-yes, I was a Hmong-American candidate, but I could be any man. District One is a mix of middle to upper-middle income residents from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. I spent a great deal of time walking the precinct, going door to door, trying to get my message out and find out what was important to them. They have the same concerns as everyone else-neighborhood safety, education, and issues regarding employment.”
When asked what was the best and the worst thing about the campaign, Xiong said the two things were connected in a way. “The worst part about it was asking people for money. Fund raising requires you to cast a wide net…the issue is never far from a candidate’s mind, as distasteful as that is. But all the while, whether you’re walking the precinct or making contact with the voters some other way…I got to see the pursuit of the American Dream up close. It was a very enriching experience.”
Blong Xiong had given a lot of thought about what remarks he would give at the swearing in ceremony. “I wondered whether I should open in English or in Hmong-ultimately I chose to open in Hmong out of respect for where I had come from; and then translate what I had said for everyone else. I welcomed everyone to “our house,” and said that all are welcome to come here to the City Council and have their concerns heard and find a resolution to any difficulty.”
When asked what advice he’d give to others, it was immediately apparent he’d pondered the question before. “I’d tell people to persevere and to work to make an impact. You’ve got to go and get the American Dream, not wait for it to drop into your lap. What it all comes down to is love for community. Rather than focusing on what makes us different, if we allow ourselves to be bound together by our commonalities, we have the ability to overcome any obstacle.”
(1) Channel 30 Action News, ABC Affiliate in Fresno, California. October 18, 2006.
(2) From the office of Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong; used with permission.