The Thaos still held tight to Hmong traditions, including the Hmong language and the practice of shamanism, which made Ms. Thao feel self-conscious in the predominantly white, working-class neighborhood where she grew up.
“I remember growing up feeling like, why can’t we just be like everyone else?” she recalled. “But it’s such a beautiful culture that, in hindsight, I wish I was raised around other Hmong people so I could be proud of who I was a lot sooner.”
A self-described “rebellious” teenager, Ms. Thao left home at age 17 and soon found herself in an abusive relationship, she said. At 20, she spent several months alternating between living in a car and couch surfing with her son, then an infant.
Later, while working a full-time administrative job, she enrolled in a community college and then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating, she started to work her way up in local politics in Oakland.
When Ms. Thao was ready to run for City Council, the clan elders swung into action, helping to mobilize a statewide network of Thaos and other Hmong residents to raise money and volunteer for her campaign, Louansee Moua said. When Ms. Thao won the race, the Thao clan threw a baci ceremony attended by more than 500 people for her in Merced, Calif., during which many in the community tied a blessing string around her wrists for good luck.
When it came to Ms. Thao’s mayoral race this year, the clan was once again eager to help out.
“There’s this strong cohesive network within the Hmong community and a sense that because she’s a Thao and we’re Thaos, of course we have to help her,” Louansee Moua explained.
To win in Oakland, Ms. Thao relied on a broad coalition of voters who supported her progressive policies, as well as endorsements and funding from major labor unions that are influential in the heavily Democratic city.