Rep. Kaohly Her attended her first Women Winning training nearly ten years ago, but it was almost a decade later before she officially launched her 2018 campaign for Minnesota House of Representatives. Winning 84% of the vote, she became one of the first Hmong-American women elected to the state legislature.
We sat down with Rep. Her to discuss the issues that motivate her, the significance of having a broad group of women supporting her candidacy, challenges and questions she faced as a woman running for office, and what she’s hearing from constituents.
Women Winning: Was there a specific event that motivated you to run for office? Or perhaps a problem that you wanted to address as an elected leader?
Rep. Kaohly Her: Growing up as an immigrant and a refugee, I didn’t know much about the political process. I was so focused on doing all the things you’re “supposed” to do to get ahead. I went to school, worked really hard to establish a career, and I spent 15 years in the private sector. I was really good at my job, but something didn’t feel right in my heart and I wasn’t fulfilled.
I ended up staying home with my daughters for five years and during that time I was advocating in the schools for my children’s education. I saw issues of bias and systemic racism, and recognized that the system was set up in a way so that services were not allocated equitably. At the same time, I was caring for my mother and experiencing significant challenges with the health care system.
Navigating the education and health care systems took up all of my time. I thought about all of the people who don’t have the privilege of time, who don’t have the privilege of resources, who don’t have the privilege of language. That’s when I decided I couldn’t just fight for my own children and my own mother anymore — I had to fight for everyone’s children and parents. Running for office was the perfect way for me to channel everything that I was feeling into a role where I could make a difference for everybody.
WW: Was there something that gave you the final push to put your name out there and run?
Rep. Her: I had been interested in politics for years and had taken steps to learn more about what was involved in campaigning. I even attended a few Women Winning trainings over the course of the last ten years! I thought about running, but then I’d say to myself, “maybe it’s not for me, maybe it’s not the right time, maybe I don’t know enough, maybe I don’t have the right experience.”
Then one of my mentors, a woman, sat me down and told me “Kaohly, there is never the right time, there’s just the right opportunity.” When the Minnesota House seat in my district opened up, it felt like the right opportunity. With the encouragement of some of my biggest supporters and allies, I decided to run. That’s what gave me the final push — other people believed that I could do it.
WW: That’s something that we hear a lot at Women Winning, that it’s so meaningful to have encouragement from members of the community, especially other women. What did it mean to you to have the support of a broad group of women when you were running?
Rep. Her: It was really important. Because the truth is, even though I’ve had a successful career, I am well educated, I have decades of experience in the professional world… I still questioned myself.
Even after I was elected, former governor Arne Carlson wrote a response to an article on the front page of the Star Tribune that included a picture of me and three other legislators who are women of color. He talked about how we looked and questioned our preparedness because of how we were dressed. You hear those kinds of comments throughout the campaign. So it’s critical to have other women there to lift you up and to help you navigate the process.
WW: As an elected official, you spend a lot of time meeting and interfacing with constituents. What are you hearing from the women you represent about the issues that are important to them?
Rep. Her: I am hearing so much, from my constituents and from folks across Minnesota. I always make time to speak with people about what’s happening in their communities. We’re having deep and interesting conversations about the environment, education, housing, transportation and bike lanes, and reproductive freedom. I really appreciate our ability to talk about the intersectionality of the issues.
We’ve already had conversations about abortion come up in one of our hearings about the Equal Rights Amendment (which Minnesota has still not passed, by the way). It is mind boggling that we can’t move forward on this issue, for equal treatment to be written in statute, without attempts to take away access to abortion.
I sit on the Judiciary Committee, and when we’re looking to improve laws that impact men there’s no pushback. For example, there’s a particular statute that would allow a man who finds out that he is not the biological father of a child to adjust child support obligations. But when we’re talking about legislation concerning marital rape, or sexual harassment, or child marriage, or rights for women who are in same-sex marriages, things that pertain to women’s bodies and women’s rights, we see pushback. The only way that changes is if we have women in positions where they can say, “hey, we need to reevaluate this.” We have to have women at the table. That’s why the work of Women Winning is so crucial and so important.
WW: What advice would you give to another woman thinking about running for office?
Rep. Her: To any woman thinking about running for office, I say this: You are smart enough. You are good enough. You bring so much life experience and so many new ideas. Keep pushing through and persevering, because we need more women in the state legislature. No matter how hard it gets, move forward and know that we need you. And once you get here, there are other women here to help and support you. It really does take a village, and there is an incredible village here to lift you up.