New Faces, Old Barriers

Benjamin, Lor proud of council victories, but say they will represent city as a whole

Tom Giffey

Laura Benjamin and John Lor
Laura Benjamin and John Lor

Incoming Eau Claire City Council members John Lor and Laura Benjamin – who won at-large seats in the April 2 election – will both bring unique skills and qualifications to the 11-member governing body.

Lor, 52, is a real estate and insurance agent with experience managing community groups and political campaigns.

Benjamin, 38, is small-business owner who is passionate about improving the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“It’s a fact about me. It’s not a reason to vote for me. It’s not a reason not to vote for me. I am who I am, and I’m living my most authentic life.” – Eau Claire City Councilmember Laura Benjamin, on being a transgender woman

As with every other elected official, Lor and Benjamin are more than their résumés. Lor –who came to Eau Claire as a refugee from Laos 30 years ago – will be the only Hmong-American on the council. Benjamin will become the first transgender person ever to serve on the council (and the first openly transgender woman elected to office in the state).

And while their personal experiences and identities are important, both councilmembers say they aren’t the most important things about them.

“I look at it as a nonissue in a lot of ways,” said Benjamin, who undertook a gender transition over the past two years. “It’s a fact about me. It’s not a reason to vote for me. It’s not a reason not to vote for me. I am who I am, and I’m living my most authentic life.”

“My job on the council is to serve the community, not just the Hmong families,” Lor said. “My duty is to be serving the whole community together. … We have diversity in this community, not just the Hmong people, but the Latino, the African-American, the Native American (people). I know that will put more pressure on my shoulders, but I think I can do it.”

LONG JOURNEY

“When I first came, I was very poor, and I needed the community to help me a lot. ... I have been successful now, and I need to give back to the community.” – Eau Claire City Councilmember John Lor, on why he ran for public office

Lor was the top vote-getter among 10 candidates seeking five at-large Eau Claire City Council seats, receiving 7,622 votes – about 1,400 more than the next-highest candidate, Kate Beaton, who was elected to a second council term. Besides Lor, Benjamin, and Beaton, the other winners were 11-year council veteran David Klinkhammer, who returned to the council after losing his district-level seat last year, and Catherine Emmanuelle, who was elected to her third three-year term.

In addition to his professional career, Lor managed political campaigns (including Michael Xiong’s successful council bids in 2013 and 2016), served as president of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, and was statewide president for the Lo/Pha clan. In that post, he traveled statewide, making decisions that impacted thousands of clan members, educating people, and helping solving Hmong families’ problems.

Lor acknowledges that his experience as an immigrant impacts his worldview. When he first came to the United States, he recalls, his family lived on $700 a month from the state’s W-2 program. Of that sum, $550 went to their monthly rent. This experience gives him a particular empathy when he hears about how many people in Eau Claire struggle to afford necessities – for example, the fact that 300 children in the school district are homeless. “These are the things that touch my heart right away,” Lor said.

However, as owner of about 20 rental properties, Lor also understands the challenges that landlords face because of license fees and regulations, which he says play a role in driving rents upward. When it comes to increasing housing affordability, he believes the city should reconsider some zoning regulations and explore offering rebates to landlords who rent to low-income people.

Lor looks forward to working on other issues during his council term. In particular, he intends to hold town hall-style meetings that will bring together Hmong residents with representatives from the City Council and even the state Legislature. He hopes these meetings will make Hmong people – especially older individuals with limited English skills – more comfortable with their elected officials.

For Lor, public service is an obligation because of how the community has helped him over the years. “When I first came, I was very poor, and I needed the community to help me a lot,” he said. “I have been successful now, and I need to give back to the community.”

BUSINESS SAVVY

Benjamin moved to Eau Claire to attend UW-Eau Claire 20 years ago and has remained in the area since. In 2010, she launched Satellite Six, a marketing agency. Having worked on various start-up initiatives with the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp. and the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, Benjamin’s knowledge of – and enthusiasm for – entrepreneurship was at the forefront of her campaign.

Now that she’s officially taken office, Benjamin is eager to get to work on these issues. In particular, she looks forward to pushing for the city to create an advisory board or committee that would include representatives of public and private groups with a stake in fostering new businesses. “There’s a lot of momentum, but there’s not a lot of alignment,” she said of entities that help start-ups. “I think there is some communication back and forth, but I think if we had that sort of regular touchpoint ... we could all start pulling in the same direction.”

In addition to boosting incubator and accelerator programs that encourage would-be entrepreneurs to get their feet wet, Benjamin wants to create a climate where existing homegrown businesses can expand.

Just as her business experience has informed her political platform, so has her personal experience as a transgender woman. Benjamin plans to advocate for a city ordinance to project LGBTQ people from discrimination, particularly when it comes to their gender identity or presentation. She is troubled by policies enacted on a federal level by the Trump administration, including recent Pentagon rules that essentially bar new transgender military recruits.

And while she was elected as one of several progressive-aligned candidates, Benjamin says she’s optimistic about working with all councilmembers, regardless of their political leanings. “I’m hopeful because one of the biggest traits that I’ve observed is open-mindedness,” she said of her colleagues. “I think that many members of council, no matter what their political alignment, they’re there because they understand servant leadership. They understand keeping an open mind when it comes to different voices and different opinions.”

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