A first-generation American, Peng Her came to this country from Laos with his family back in the ’70s when he was 5 years old, first stopping at the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand. Having experienced the atrocities of war, his family was seeking a better life in the United States.
“I came here to America as a refugee with nothing but the clothes on my back. I had to study hard just to learn English. We came early on back in 1976 and there wasn’t a lot of Hmong here in the United States. It was tough,” Her remembers. “But I want to share with folks that if you work hard and play by the rules you can go from being a refugee to starting your own business or getting a college degree or even running for Lt. Governor.”
Forty-five years later, Her, a longtime Hmong leader from Madison’s north side and current CEO at The Hmong Institute, is hoping to become the state’s next lieutenant governor. With that, he would also become the first Hmong-American elected to statewide office.
“For me, it is important to be the first Hmong elected statewide … but it is more important to not be the last because when I think of Wisconsin, the diversity is here. I hope that my candidacy will inspire other people of color to run, particularly in the Hmong community,” Her tells Madison365. “We’ve been in Wisconsin for over 46 years now. We are a part of so many communities. I hope it leads to more opportunities for people to run and get elected and to represent the communities that they live in.”
Last month, Her joined a crowded Democratic field seeking to replace Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, who is running for U.S. Senate rather than seeking a second term.
“If you think about it, we all have so many shared values here in Wisconsin … and that’s why I’m running for lieutenant governor,” Her says. “No matter where we are in the state, we all care about the same issues whether it’s making sure that we all have access to quality, good health care to having a thriving economy that is sustainable for everyone to succeed. We all care about having great public schools for our children and clean air and water for our future. These are things that everybody wants and that I’ve been working on.
“As we bounce back from COVID, we need to work together to solve some of these real challenges,” he adds. “I feel that I have the skills and the experience to do that and I want to put those skills and experiences to work on behalf of all of the people of Wisconsin.”
Her has been a small business owner, opening and operating a successful restaurant on Madison’s east side for five years. He has also worked with the nationally renowned UW Madison Institute for Research on Poverty where he was part of the DreamUP Wisconsin initiative, a community-university collaboration to expand economic opportunity.
An active community member and the winner of the 2015 City-County MLK Humanitarian Award, Her has been moving beyond Madison and reaching out around the state to talk with people to find out what their issues are.
“One of the issues that comes up when I talk to Wisconsinites as I campaign is that they are really concerned about their recovery from COVID – both economically and as far as mental health,” Her says. “This has been a rough couple of years for people. This pandemic has really brought attention to some barriers that families, workers and businesses here in Wisconsin face.”
Access to daycare, for example, is another concern along with a lack of broadband internet access in rural areas and finding good-paying jobs, Her says.
“How do we make sure there are jobs for someone who lost their job during COVID and are looking to get back in the workforce? Public education is also a big issue. We need to focus not just on the schools, but on students, parents and teachers,” Her says. “As a parent with children in the public school system, COVID has really highlighted the challenges that students face as well as our teachers. We want to make sure that our schools, teachers, and students have the resources they need. We really need to fully fund special education.”
Her says that public safety is an issue that people talk about to him a lot.
“I want to make sure that our roads and bridges are well-maintained so that as we drive on them, particularly in the winter months, we are all safe,” he says. “These are some of the things that I have been hearing from people and I’m eager to get started on them when I’m elected.
“Housing is an important issue whether you live in urban Milwaukee to rural northern Wisconsin,” he continues. “I have been fortunate to sit on the Race to Equity workgroup dealing with and looking at homelessness and looking at some of the policies that create divides in housing and policies and innovative ideas we can implement in the state of Wisconsin to remove those barriers and make housing not just equitable, but to end homelessness.”
Her knows what it’s like to grow up poor and live on the margins. When his family first landed in Des Moines in December of 1976, they had next to nothing and were sponsored by a church in Oskaloosa, Iowa.
“We were part of the first wave to come. Back then, there weren’t non-profits to help us adjust. We had to adjust on our own and learn English,” says Her, who became a United States citizen in 1986.
Her earned a bachelor’s of science in physics from Central College in Iowa in 1994 before earning his master’s degree in applied physics from DePaul University in 1997. After working at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, the first Hmong physicist to do so, Peng moved to Madison with his wife Mai Zong Vue.
According to his campaign website, increasing access to quality health care will be one of his priorities.
“I’ve had some real-life experiences being a refugee and being a parent that has given me perspectives on topics like health care,” Her says. “And I think if COVID hits us hard or we have a medical emergency that we have the ability to see a physician and know that we’re not one illness from being bankrupt. We need to have access to quality health care and that’s one of the reasons why I’m the current board president for Access Community Health Center. Sitting on that, I can really see the challenges that people face who may not have insurance or have insurance that isn’t adequate. How do we make sure that people are healthier – both physically and mentally.”
As the founder and CEO of the Hmong Institute, an organization in Madison that focuses on providing education, training, and outreach to improve health care and educational achievement for communities of color around Wisconsin, Her runs a program that provides health services to Hmong elders and seniors who may have PTSD or other challenges.
“Mental health is a very important piece in the work that I do as well as a great need in our community,” he says. “As you know, I also work in education and our Hmong Education Enrichment Program that teaches Hmong students how to read and write in Hmong, how to speak it, and to know the history and their culture and where they came from. It helps build their positive self-esteem, self-confidence and self-pride. It makes them do better in school and in life. I think this and a lot of experiences I have working on these issues can be used for all of Wisconsin.”
According to his bio, Her has also served as the associate director for the Center for Resilient Cities, as vice president of Promise Zones and Partnerships at the Urban League of Greater Madison, and as the executive director of the East Isthmus Neighborhood Planning Council where he facilitated community-driven planning and action and helped inspire residents.
His statewide experience includes serving as a member of Governor Tony Evers’ Early Childhood Advisory Council and Racial Equity Working Group on Homelessness. Her says that he is looking forward to supporting Evers and partnering with him to advance shared values
“We have so many shared values across the state. I can’t wait for warmer weather and to really get out and about around the state. We’re building a coalition of individuals from different communities,” Her says. “Even though I’m a Hmong person, I’m not just a Hmong candidate, but I’m a candidate for the state of Wisconsin. So we want to build a strong coalition of people from all different backgrounds of different races and ethnicities and different ages and generations. I really want people to get to know me and to understand that I am the best-qualified person to run and to win.”
The primary for the Wisconsin gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial election will be Tuesday, Aug. 9. The general election will be Tuesday, Nov. 8.