With US Midterm Vote, Massachusetts Cambodians Flex Local Power

For Cambodian American residents of Lowell, Massachusetts, the upcoming midterm vote is chance to voice concerns on a list of local concerns familiar throughout the U.S. — potholes, schools and housing costs.

Sreang Heng, the Cambodia-born owner of Heng Heng Auto Repair near Lowell’s Koumantzelis Park-Roberto Clemente Baseball Field, said potholes are taking a toll on his customers’ vehicles, which come to him with damaged tires and tie rods. While this means more work for auto repair shops like his, he’d rather not have it because of the social cost, especially to those who cannot afford to make all the repairs needed at one time.

“Most of them complain the spare parts are expensive because taxes are already included, so they bargain for the reduction of service charges,” said the 46-year-old who arrived in the U.S. in 2016.

Located on the Merrimack River, Lowell is 50 kilometers north of Boston. An early center of America’s once-thriving textile industry, Lowell has attracted European and Latin American immigrants since the 19th century. In the 1980s, Cambodian refugees fleeing civil war and the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge began arriving. Today, the city of about 115,000 residents is nearly 25% Asian, home to the nation’s second-largest Cambodian community in America after Long Beach, California.

But in a city where minorities are close to the majority, according to U.S. Census data, white residents held most of elected positions until recently.

The change came when a coalition of Latino and Asian American residents filed a civil rights suit in 2017. Their attorney, Oren Sellstrom, argued Lowell violated his clients’ voting rights by electing officials on a citywide basis. The plaintiffs and the city settled in 2019, agreeing to establish districts that better represented the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

The changes in Lowell mirror those rippling through the U.S., which the Census has projected will have a population with a majority of minorities within decades. And the evolution of the Cambodian community as one that has progressed from nominal representation to exerting political power in the city and state is a path to assimilation well-worn by earlier immigrant groups.

Lowell now has eight districts, two of them with a majority of non-white voters. The city elected a Cambodian-born mayor, Sokhary Chau, in 2021. He took office in January along with two Cambodian American council members who were also born in Cambodia.

Mony Var, 56, is the first Cambodian to work for the Lowell Election Commission. In the 1990s, the city had 30,000 Cambodian residents, but only 123 Cambodians were registered to vote. Now, about 2,000 Cambodians are registered to vote. He said midterm and primary elections are as important for the community as the general election.

Mony Var, who arrived in the U.S. in 1980, said while voters may be disinterested in the midterms, “All elections are important. We must take the opportunity and fulfill the duty to vote in every election. Don’t only come to vote on the presidential election.”

The midterm focus of the Cambodian community on issues like potholes and schools suggests the validity of the oft-repeated maxim of U.S. life, “All politics is local.”

Sovann Khorn, who arrived in the U.S. from Cambodia via the Khao-i-Dang refugee camp in Thailand, runs a party-service business that also provides video and still photography for weddings, and dress rentals. The 57-year-old wants Lowell schools to crack down on students’ misbehavior and limit their video-gaming time.

Rodney Elliott, a former Lowell mayor and city council member, is a Democrat running to be state representative for the 16th Middlesex District against Republican Karla Miller. The district is home to many Cambodians.

Elliott, who is not Cambodian but who has visited Cambodia twice, said when he was mayor in 2014 he raised $300,000 for victims of a fatal fire, some of whom were Cambodians. He also commissioned a statue of Cambodian refugees for City Hall’s front yard.

Miller, a first-time office seeker, said there are few Cambodians in Chelmsford, her home base.

“I would love to reach out to the Cambodian community. … This is my first rodeo, so I don’t know a lot of people in different communities,” she said.

State representative for the 17th Middlesex District, Vanna Howard, 52, arrived from Cambodia in 1980.

In 2020, she was the first Cambodian woman elected to be a state representative in the U.S., motivated by “the need to give back to a place which has been so good to me,” according to her website.

Howard is running unopposed for reelection this year. She told VOA Khmer that voters ask her for help with a variety of issues, including unemployment, and improving schools, roads and bridges.

“And another one is housing,” said the Democrat. Lowell faces a housing shortage and the available options are expensive, she said, adding, “They want [my] help to keep prices on housing from going up too much, [to find] funds for housing.”

Insurance company owner Mony Var, 56, arrived in the U.S. in 1981 and now lives in the 18th Middlesex House District. He said local representatives “should listen to businessmen in the area to write high-standard business law that help local business[es] prosper and to bring in other businessmen to our area.”

Veteran state representative Rady Mom, 54, who arrived in 1982, is a Democrat and running unopposed after defeating two Cambodian-born challengers for the 18th Middlesex House District in the September 6 primary. According to U.S. Census data, the district population is about 41% white, 32% Asian, 17% Hispanic and 7% Black. Thirty-one percent of the residents are foreign-born.

John Cluverius, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, told the Boston public radio station WGBH before the primary that the race among three Cambodian-born candidates showed how the community was moving beyond just seeking representation.

“It’s not that this coalition and this community is fighting for its political existence anymore or its simple representation,” Cluverius told WGBH. “But, instead, you see a community that looks like any other community with political power, which is that the divisions within start emerging more, and so you start seeing challenges within that community to incumbent representatives in that community.”

Or as Rady Mom, who in 2014 became the first Cambodian American state lawmaker in the U.S., put it, “My role is listening to people, convey their messages. If I don’t work for them, every two years, voters can vote me out and pick my challenger. That is democracy.”

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