Judge Yang in her future courtroom

How Kristy Yang Won the Race for Judge

Fueled by a desire to set an example for the Hmong community, Judge Kristy Wang won a seat on the bench one handshake at a time.

Judge Yang's first English words and campaign slogan: "Pepsi, please."
Judge Yang’s first English words and campaign slogan: “Pepsi, please.”; photo by Kat Schleicher

When Kashoua “Kristy” Yang answered her phone at 8:15 p.m. on April 4, she was on her way from her home in Oak Creek to Bounce Milwaukee, where her election-night party was taking place. A kid-friendly indoor playground isn’t the typical venue for such an event – Scott Wales, her opponent in the race for the judge seat in Milwaukee County Circuit Court’s Branch 47, was holding his at Pizza Man on Downer Ave. – but Yang chose it for its inclusiveness. She has three daughters – ages 2, 6 and 17 – and she wanted all of them there.

But when the phone rang, she was sitting in a Home Depot parking lot off of I-94, trying to rendezvous with her parents, who had driven down from Sheboygan but couldn’t find Bounce.

“I’m going to call the election – you just won.”

Yang’s caller was Todd Robert Murphy, her senior campaign consultant. Murphy, a well-connected and veteran political adviser, was studying early results.

Yang was caught off guard. The polls had closed only 15 minutes before. “Let’s wait until more numbers are in,” she said.

“You’re going to steal this moment from me?” Murphy said.

A diminutive woman with a soft voice that cloaks her abundant self-confidence and resolve, 36-year-old Yang was seeking to become the second (and the first female) Hmong-American judge in the United States, following Paul C. Lo in California. In doing so, the Milwaukee attorney was breaking new ground in Milwaukee County, where despite a population of over 10,000 Hmong-Americans, none had ever sought any public office. For Yang, winning wasn’t the only objective.

“One of the things I wanted was to set an example and build a foundation,” Yang says. “So if I was unsuccessful, someone else could build on that.”

Instead of focusing on the end result, Yang diligently tended to the daily tasks of her campaign. She kept a rigorous schedule, making countless appearances countrywide and shaking thousands of hands.

“I was confident in what I was doing day to day,” Yang says. “That doesn’t translate that I was confident about the outcome. I had no idea” of that.

But soon after Yang arrived at Bounce on election night, it was evident that Murphy was right: Yang had a clear win, eventually receiving 57 percent of the vote. All that hand-shaking had paid off.

While the youngsters played in the inflatable houses, Yang greeted supporters and let the victory sink in. High in the Hmong culture is respecting parents and bringing honor to the family. Yang’s victory did that. It was especially important to her dad, the only one in his family to go to school in Laos, who took a blue-collar factory job on coming to the United States. Yang’s win, she felt, “let him live vicariously through me.”

Celebrating Judge Yang's win at Bounce Milwaukee
Celebrating Judge Yang’s win at Bounce Milwaukee; Photo by JLY Photography

You get pieces of it over time,” Yang says, referencing her extended family history, and her own first years. Hmong are mountain-dwelling people from Southeast Asia and China, or, as Yang prefers, “a free people,” without a definition of country or artificial borders.

Both her parents were born in Laos. “Anecdotally we heard they were the two most attractive people [in the community],” Yang says. “It wasn’t an arranged marriage, but they were introduced, and the rest is history.”

Yang’s oldest sister – there would eventually be 11 children, nine girls and two boys – was born in Laos. Yang’s parents then sought to leave the country, because even after the official “end” of the Vietnam War, the fighting continued.

Kristy was born, the third child, after her parents fled to Thailand. She spent her first six years, prior to coming to the United States, in Thailand’s Ban Vinai refugee camp.

Not long after the election, Yang saw the movie Lion and was struck by what the boy in the film – 5 when he was lost on the streets of Calcutta – could later recall of his prior life.

“It’s pretty much like that for me,” she says of her years in the refugee camp. “There are things cemented in my mind. If I close my eyes, I can see them.”

Ban Vinai was in northeastern Thailand. Vast numbers of Hmong refugees were housed there. “Thousands and thousands,” Yang says. Neighborhoods were established, rows of hut-like apartments, each family with its own small unit.

Yang’s memories include the beating of drums across three days and nights that signaled a funeral
She’d go for walks, barefoot and alone – “there wasn’t always money for shoes” – and see rice paddies shimmering in the distance.

The Yang family in Thailand, during the application process to emigrate to the United States. Kristy is No. 1.5, standing next to her mother.
The Yang family in Thailand, during the application process to emigrate to the United States. Kristy is No. 1.5, standing next to her mother; photo courtesy of Kristy Yang

There wasn’t always food, either. Mai Der Yang, Kristy’s younger sister who is also a Milwaukee attorney, remembers “standing in line to get food rations.” At the camp – part of Hmong culture – the men ate first, the women next, older children last. “I remember getting the scraps,” Yang says. The adults occasionally drank American soda, and the kids would hover, hoping to finish any last sips left over in the bottles. This treat led to Yang’s first English words: “Pepsi, please.” Three decades later, those words would figure in her judicial campaign.

Nancy Yang, Kristy’s mother, started thinking about a better life in the United States. Her parents and immediate family had emigrated, and Nancy wanted to follow suit. But her husband, Thomas’, family still resided in Asia, and he wasn’t keen on leaving. Nancy began the paperwork process anyway, and according to Kristy, proposed a deal.

There were six daughters by then. Nancy said, “If I have a son for you, we’re going to America. Deal?”

“Deal.” She had a boy.

There was more paperwork, and excitement as tapes arrived from Yang’s grandmother in America telling about life in Buford, Georgia, outside Atlanta. “We heard that Americans are very generous and that people don’t go hungry,” Yang says.

Leaving Thailand for Georgia, she remembers getting on a bus for a four-hour ride to the airport. It was hot, but the new adventure invigorated her. “I was more excited than scared,” Yang recalls.

All 10 family members (including an uncle) couldn’t sit together on the flight, so Yang sat separately, with strangers. There was a Western film playing, cowboy hats and gunfire. At one point, she got the attention of a flight attendant with a drink cart. “Pepsi, please,” she said, putting her only English phrase to good use.

The family wasn’t in Georgia long. Yang’s mother’s brother called from Wisconsin.

“Come to Sheboygan. There are jobs,” he told Yang’s father. In Wisconsin, the kids went to school, and both Yang’s parents worked factory jobs.

Growing up in Sheboygan was a mixed bag of experiences, good and bad. Her parents fought racial prejudice. The future judge – she’d never forget it – felt their dignity diminished in offhand remarks by strangers.

“I heard them called gooks,” says Yang, who was bullied and often the last one picked for teams in gym class, not because of her ability, but because of the communication gap.

Yang and her sisters bridged that by learning not just English, but another language – for Kristy, Spanish. That type of over-achievement became the norm. Their father stressed the importance of education, and the girls were good students who pushed each other to excel. If one made honors, that became the expectation.

It was in a Spanish honors class that Yang overheard a classmate say she intended to go to Yale Law School. For a moment, Yang considered that possibility, but she quickly discarded it. “She came from different cloth,” Yang says or her fellow student. “At least one of her parents was a scientist.”

She liked painting enough to have applied and been accepted at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, but changed course after marrying at age 18.

Yang concedes that the early marriage was not in keeping with her ambitious nature. “It seems to not align,” she says. But she fell in love. “I was a kid, and you think you know it all. I made some bad decisions.”

With the arrival of her first daughter shortly thereafter, “I decided I had to do something practical.” That was computer science, first at a tech school, and then Lakeland College (now University) in Plymouth. She’d worked at Kohler during college, and moved to the IT division after graduating.

Although the marriage was short-lived, Yang had made a comfortable life for herself and her child. Then, one day when Yang was putting her daughter down for a nap, her mother called, frantic.

Yang’s brother, not yet 10 years old, was struck by a car while riding his bike, pinned underneath and dragged for a block. “He was in horrible condition,” Yang says, when she arrived at Sheboygan’s Memorial Hospital.

The next days and weeks, as Yang helped her parents navigate both the medical and legal systems, were life-changing.

“I was interpreting, but it was more than interpreting,” she says. “It was understanding their concerns and how to parse them in such a way that a doctor or lawyer could understand. It was a very vigorous exercise.”

One lawyer, having agreed to an appointment, kept them waiting, then opened the discussion by saying, “I’m not interested in your case.”

As her brother began his recovery, Yang began her own transformation. She enrolled in law school at UW-Madison, determined never to be a lawyer who wasn’t interested.

After graduating from law school in 2009 – sister Mai Der graduated with her – Yang practiced with Nonprofit Legal Services of Southeastern Wisconsin; after six months, she joined Hawks Quindel, a Milwaukee firm, where she specialized in family law, workers’ compensation and Social Security.

She also remarried her ex-husband, a decade after their divorce, and they had two more children. “I don’t know that we ever really fell out of love,” she says. “We grew and found our way back together.” (Private in the extreme, Yang refused to reveal her husband’s name for this article.)

In 2014, after four years with Hawks Quindel, Yang left to start a solo practice. She didn’t have any master plan, but she’d begun thinking about the roles of attorneys and judges, and the elusive search for fairness and justice.

“As an advocate,” Yang says, “I’m hired to advance my client’s interest, not mine, and not society’s. Thus the term ‘hired gun.’ You accept that. You balance that with wanting to improve the craft, contributing to and elevating the legal system.”

While practicing, Yang was learning some lessons about how the system works. In particular, she observed that, to some extent, each judge interprets the law in his or her own way. “It begged the question,” she says, “could I do that? Could I define justice and fairness in a different way?”

It remained hypothetical until mid-2015 when a friend – a sitting Milwaukee circuit court judge (she declines to name him) – suggested Yang run for judge. She took it as a compliment and moved on, but the friend was persistent. The window was narrowing. Judges were getting elected younger – Rebecca Dallet, now running for Wisconsin Supreme Court, was in her 30s when elected to the bench in 2008 – and since sitting judges are usually re-elected, those seats are often locked up for a long time. One night, Yang casually mentioned running to her husband. He liked the idea.

There are 47 circuit judges in Milwaukee County, serving six-year terms and earning around $132,000 annually. In August 2016, Yang registered to run in Branch 21, where the judge, Cynthia Davis, a Scott Walker appointee, was up for election in April 2017.

There was also buzz that John Siefert, the sitting judge in Branch 47, would not seek re-election in April 2017. Open judgeships are rare. Scott Wales, a veteran Milwaukee-area criminal defense attorney  and part-time municipal judge in Fox Point, registered in spring 2016 to run for Branch 47.

Yang says when she registered for Branch 21, she made a courtesy call to Wales, saying that if it became clear Siefert wasn’t going to seek reelection, she would likely switch and register for Branch 47.

“I wanted [Wales] to know I would continue to be professional and civil and friendly,” Yang says, “and I didn’t  want him to think I was doing anything underhanded if I got into his race.”

Later, as the race heated up, what was said in that phone call would be debated.

In the meantime, Yang reached out, through a mutual friend, to campaign consultant Todd Robert Murphy. Murphy was hesitant at first.

“They were persistent,” Murphy says, and eventually he shared a two-hour phone conversation with the neophyte candidate. Murphy was impressed. Yang told her family story, and when she talked about her first English words – “Pepsi, please” – Murphy heard a phrase he could launch a campaign on. He signed up.

In mid-November, Siefert was out, and Yang’s campaign announced her candidacy. The battle for Branch 47 was joined – Kristy Yang vs. Scott Wales – and it was a battle indeed, especially in the context of generally restrained judicial races. The contrast between the candidates was vivid. Yang brought her compelling life story and a passion for giving voice to those not always heard. Wales, at 55, had abundantly more courtroom experience. He talked during the campaign about having overcome a birth condition that caused facial paralysis. In a TV ad, Wales mentioned that 80 percent of the endorsing judges in the race chose him.

On paper, Wales seemed the favorite.

Around the time of her courtesy phone call to Wales in August, Yang’s campaign tried to buy the internet domain name yangforjudge.com, only to learn it had already been purchased – by Wales, it was later learned. (According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the site eventually went live and included a red box with this: “WARNING: Attorney Kashoua Kristy Yang is NOT QUALIFIED.”)

Yang was taken aback, and says she “called [Wales] out on that” at a candidate’s forum. At which point, Yang says, Wales claimed he bought the domain name in response to something Yang said during the phone conversation that summer.

At the forum, according to Yang, Wales – he would repeat this for a Journal Sentinel story in late March – said Yang claimed to have “dirt” on Cynthia Davis, and, according to the newspaper, “insinuated she hoped there was none on Wales.”

Wales told the JS he found the call “unnerving.”

Yang denies saying anything about Cynthia Davis in that phone call, or making any comments involving dirt to Wales. “My campaign was about me and my ability,” she insists.

Asked to address the telephone call and the domain name controversy for this article, Scott Wales declined to comment beyond a written statement, which read in part: “The campaign was hard-fought and I am proud of the effort we made in meeting so many wonderful people including countless community stakeholders. … I continue to wish Judge-Elect Yang happiness and success, and believe that as a jurist she will provide a unique and valuable perspective that will make our community proud.”

Yang’s response to the controversy was to keep her eyes on the prize and keep working.

“Of all of us siblings,” says Mai Der Yang, “Kristy is the one who has the least amount of fear. Fear of failure, of being judged. Standing up for herself and others – she was true to that.”

As the campaign drew to a close, Yang ramped up her schedule, running from Friday fish fries to Sunday church steps, shaking hands and listening. It was the kind of “retail politics” not generally seen in judicial races, and it worked. Yang and Murphy, her veteran campaign consultant, met every Monday, mapped a strategy for the week, and off she went.

He was inspired. “A great work ethic,” Murphy said of Yang, “smart as a whip, engaging personality, a dry but wonderful sense of humor – and a true student of the law and all things legal.”

In the end, the voters agreed. In victory, Yang was celebrated in the media as not just the nation’s first female Hmong-American judge, but also Wisconsin’s first female Asian-American judge.

Yang hopes the publicity might embolden other Hmong-Americans to try a legal career. She says there are only a handful of Hmong-speaking attorneys in Milwaukee County now.

“I would like to see more,” she says, “as well as Hmong individuals working in law firms as paralegals and legal assistants.”

Yang spent the weeks following the election finishing up cases and closing her law office, and was looking forward to taking the bench August 1.

In May, four of Yang’s sisters joined her on a celebratory vacation trip to California. There was a lot of laughter but there was some reflection, too, on the long journey that Yang and the family had made.

One of those sisters, Kristy’s law school classmate, Mai Der, pondered aloud, “How can you sum it up in a word?” She thought a bit, and tried. “Amazing.” ◆

‘Making Her People Proud’ appears in the August 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 31, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Doug Moe is a Madison-based writer and former longtime columnist for Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times.