Rep. John Thompson faces challengers Hoang Murphy, Liz Lee in endorsement race

By: and - March 24, 2022 7:09 am

From left to right, Rep. John Thompson, I-Saint Paul; Hoang Murphy; Liz Lee. Photos by Nicole Meri/Minnesota Reformer

The governor and the speaker of the Minnesota House called for him to resign. His party caucus ousted him. But embattled Rep. John Thompson is running for reelection. To win a second term, he’ll need to defeat two challengers in the strongly Democratic East Side St. Paul district.

Hoang Murphy, founder of the St. Paul-based nonprofit Foster Advocates, and Kaozouapa “Liz” Lee, a nonprofit consultant and former Washington, D.C., staffer, are both in the race.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor party will consider endorsing a candidate at its local convention on Saturday. 

Thompson won the seat in 2020, when former Rep. Tim Mahoney retired after two decades representing a district that now reflects the city’s more diverse demographics. Nearly 30% of district residents are foreign-born.

Thompson’s time in office has been overshadowed by multiple controversies, including his saying “you think we give a f— about Hugo burning down” during a protest outside the suburban house of former Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll. 

He has faced allegations of domestic assault, including in front of young children. Those revelations prompted a wave of calls to resign.

During a traffic stop in July, Thompson prompted residency questions after he presented the officer with a Wisconsin driver’s license. 

He now has a Minnesota driver’s license, and he says he regrets the Hugo incident. 

Thompson didn’t resign, and Minnesota House Democrats removed him from their caucus.

In a Facebook post following the exile, Thompson wrote that “Allegations about something that allegedly happened to me 20 years ago does not disqualify me from doing my job today. As a matter of fact, it only gave me strength to fight harder and help transform the communities I am fighting for.”

Hoang Murphy

When Murphy left the East Side as a kid, he thought he’d never return. 

“It was a hard place to grow up,” he said. “I left thinking ‘I’m out, I’m finally free.’” 

Murphy, who is Vietnamese-American and disabled, grew up in cities across Minnesota as a foster child. Despite having a guidance counselor tell him that “college wasn’t for me,” he attended Syracuse University. 

After graduating in 2013, Murphy moved to Moorhead with his wife. He got a union job at an American Crystal sugar factory.

“I learned what it meant to deal with the challenges of making enough just to get by and what it meant to folks every day to feel grateful to have work,” he said. “Rich kids would’ve toured Europe, and I instead got a job.”

Minnesota House candidate Hoang Murphy poses for a portrait outside of his St. Paul home Sunday, March 13, 2022. Photo by Nicole Meri/Minnesota Reformer

After some time working in education, Murphy founded Foster Advocates and moved back to St. Paul’s East Side with his wife, a kindergarten teacher. Foster Advocates has gotten two pieces of legislation passed in the Minnesota Legislature, including a law that will provide free public college for young adults in the foster system. 

He first ran in the district’s primary for the House seat in 2020, but dropped out of the race due to a medical issue. It was too late to remove his name from the ballot, but Murphy still won 40% of the primary vote.

Murphy believes his own past gives him unique empathy for the plight of disadvantaged young people.

“As a candidate and legislator I will see these kids fully,” Murphy said, adding that his priorities would be jobs, affordable housing and education.

“There’s a lot of hard work on the East Side, there’s a lot of untapped potential, and that’s how you build it. You invest in it,” he said. “The fact that you can see the Capitol dome from the East Side, but so few people in my community have been there breaks my heart.”

Liz Lee

Lee’s first job was delivering papers for the Eastside Review in the very district where she’s now seeking office. Her family has lived in the district for decades, after her parents emigrated to the U.S. from a Thai refugee camp where they landed when they were displaced from Laos.

As a young girl, she played softball with her siblings in East Side’s parks. In high school she worked as a House aide to Mahoney, Thompson’s predecessor.

“Growing up on the East Side definitely showed me the inequities that are present in the district,” she said.

Lee remembers the “amazing transformation” when the city and county redeveloped the Phalen commercial area from barren land to a housing complex and Cub and Aldi grocery stores.

Minnesota House candidate Liz Lee poses for a portrait outside of Caydence Coffee in St. Paul Sunday, March 13, 2022. Photo by Nicole Meri/Minnesota Reformer

Lee left the East Side for college at Yale, then spent several years in Washington, D.C., working for Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Barbara Lee and Keith Ellison. 

“Working for (Ellison) was great because he helped me build confidence in understanding that there’s no shame in being poor or working-class,” she said.

Her legislative priorities are rent stabilization, good-paying jobs, infrastructure and health equity. 

The median household income on the East Side is just under $52,000, about $20,000 below the state median, and about 43% of people in the district are renters.

In Lee’s eyes, the election will be pivotal for the East Side and the state.

“Everyone is on the ballot,” she said. “The person who makes those decisions should be the most qualified.”

Rep. John Thompson

Thompson grew up in Chicago. He worked for St. Paul Public Schools from 2013 to 2019 as a cafeteria equipment repairman, where he was friends and coworkers with Philando Castile. In 2016, a St. Anthony police officer shot and killed Castile during a traffic stop, which turned Thompson into an activist against police brutality.

Thompson ran for the Minnesota House in 2020, pledging to fight for police reform.

Since taking office in early 2021, Thompson has proposed bringing nearly $80 million in state funding to the East Side through various pieces of legislation. But only a few received serious consideration and one Thompson bill secured funding to increase reimbursement rates for culturally specific substance abuse disorder treatment, a House DFL spokesman said.

Thompson said his legislative efforts have focused on reforming the police and supporting Black communities, including one to create community resource centers named for Castile. 

Minnesota House Rep. John Thompson speaks about his platform and campaign for re-election at Golden Thyme in St. Paul Friday, March 18, 2022. Photo by Nicole Meri/Minnesota Reformer

Even before he was elected, Thompson became a controversial figure for Democrats after a protest at the Hugo home of a Minneapolis police union official and his wife, a Twin Cities TV journalist. Democrats distanced themselves. They would later turn on him after the fallout of a July 4, 2021 traffic stop in which Thompson showed a Wisconsin driver’s license. 

Additional scrutiny found police reports, starting in 2003, that allege Thompson has choked, hit and exposed himself to women, sometimes in front of children. A 2004 police report from Eagan detailed allegations that he once slammed a woman through a kitchen table after she tried to escape his choking and hitting, allegedly telling the woman, “I’ll choke you until you can’t breathe anymore.”

Another time, he allegedly punched his girlfriend in a supermarket parking lot in front of her 5-year-old.

He has denied the allegations and was only ever convicted of disorderly conduct in one of the cases. His attorney, Jordan Kushner, said the accusations were part of a “continuous smear campaign” and claimed they were fabricated. 

Nonetheless, Thompson said in an interview he has grown since then. 

“I didn’t run for office 20 years ago,” he said. “I’d be a damn fool to be the same man.”

Thompson told the Reformer he believes many of the attacks aimed at him are racially motivated. He has taken steps to keep his home address private, including listing a PO box for his campaign and his Minnesota drivers license, issued last September. 

“Any Black man who’s ever stood up and did exactly what I’ve been doing for the past seven years has always been a target of these same allegations and tactics to try to tear them down,” he said. 

Thompson, who is part of his own Independent caucus, said that he planned to seek the DFL endorsement. “I was born and raised a DFLer. My grandparents were DFLers. My mother was a DFLer,” he said. 

He added: “What I’m doing now is not for any political party. It’s for the people. It’s people over party, people over politics … What I’m doing right now is for a lot of people who don’t feel they have a voice.”

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Anna Koenning
Anna Koenning

Anna Koenning is a reporting intern for the Reformer. She covered international news for Madrid-based El Independiente and works as a barista when she isn't at the Reformer or in class at the University of Minnesota, where she studies journalism, Spanish and political science.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a senior political reporter for the Reformer.