The believer

The nation’s first Hmong-American mayor faces reelection opposition from a vice mayor backed by the rest of the Elk Grove City Council

Steve Ly stops for a photo after speaking to the Friendship Coalition in Elk Grove.

Steve Ly stops for a photo after speaking to the Friendship Coalition in Elk Grove.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Steve Ly says his family story proves the American Dream isn’t dead.

In 1975, Ly’s parents escaped the Communist purges in Laos, arriving in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand, a crowded, disease-ridden place that left a collective scar on the Hmong psyche. But from the moment Ly’s parents set foot on U.S. soil, they were determined to build a new life. That fortitude allowed their son to get a university education, a law degree, a career in social work and to eventually be elected the first Hmong-American mayor in the nation’s history.

Ly says that trajectory has convinced him the country really is a proverbial beacon. It’s also the reason, as Elk Grove’s top elected official, Ly won’t stay silent about immigrant-scapegoating that’s sweeping into mainstream politics. It might be easier to avoid controversy while seeking reelection against a crowded field of challengers, but Ly says giving back to his adopted homeland also means reminding some about the many colors of the American mosaic.

The tale starts during the Vietnam War: Ly’s father, Capt. Youachao Ly, worked as a CIA operative for the U.S. Air Force Command. Youachao’s job included calling in enemy positions for air strikes and helping rescue downed American fighter pilots in the jungle. Youachao was one of 30,000 Hmong men who fought at the direction of the U.S. military in Laos and Cambodia. By some estimates, nearly half were killed.

When American forces pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, Hmong villagers became one of the Communists’ main targets of revenge. Ly was born inside Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. After living there for a year, the family was granted refugee status in the United States. Ly recalls that they had $5 when they arrived in Southern California.

Ly’s father worked during the day and attended night school to learn English. Youachao eventually had a successful run as a certified auto mechanic before opting to return to his farming roots. The patriarch moved the family to Clovis, where the younger Ly spent his free time after school picking strawberries, sugar peas and cherry tomatoes. Ly says his father took advantage of every opportunity to participate in his new home’s political system.

“One of the reasons my dad fought for the Americans is because he believed in having a democracy where you could actually vote for your elected officials,” Ly remembered. “When he came here, he really clung to that. After he became a citizen, he voted in every election.”

Attending UC Davis brought Ly to the capital region. Later, working as a volunteer with Sacramento Area Congregations Together, he became immersed in Sacramento’s thriving Hmong community. What drew Ly to Elk Grove, however, was happenstance. He and his wife Cua were driving on Highway 99 on their way to Fresno when they ventured down Elk Grove Boulevard for gas. They soon found themselves on the city’s old historic avenue.

“I looked around and thought of old town Clovis,” Ly recalled with a smile. “I fell in love with the place.”

Cua became a teacher in Elk Grove while Ly started working as a counselor for at-risk teens in juvenile hall. He still holds that position. A strong supporter of youth intervention and job training for first-time offenders, Ly quickly discovered that the best priorities can be stymied by bureaucratic lollygagging. He says that’s what inspired him to run for office.

“The turning point for me was when I just got tired of asking politicians for resources,” he said.

Ly was elected as a board trustee to the Elk Grove Unified School District in 2012, followed by a successful run for the Elk Grove City Council in 2014. A little under two years ago, Elk Grove voters made history when they elected Ly to be the city’s first Hmong-American mayor.

Ly’s path to a second term isn’t unobstructed, and his challengers reflect the diversity and growth challenges of the 18-year-old city: Along with business consultant Tracie Stafford and business owner Jabin McGowan, two African-American candidates, Vice Mayor Darren Suen announced his candidacy last month—and was immediately endorsed by three-fifths of the City Council, the Elk Grove Citizen reported.

While Ly recognizes what a cultural milestone his election was, he stresses he’s running for reelection on a citywide platform. He says his main priorities are landing new jobs, increasing police staffing and school resource officers, fostering a local biotech industry that would work with Elk Grove’s pharmacy school, and finding a way to get the city its own hospital and emergency room.

But not everyone wants to hear that platform. Ly says he’s received threatening and offensive messages, including one on social media after his election that said, “Go home refugee.” Ly says that, rather than get upset, he’s tried to double down on using both his office and his personal story to educate people about why refugees and immigrants want to be part of the American experience.

“I freely and proudly act as a public voice,” he told SN&R. “I’ve received criticism for it, but for me, it’s about teaching opportunities.”

Ly added, “The reason I’m here is the reason all Americans are here. It involves a story: Something happened during our journey that caused us to search for freedom.”