This year’s city council election in Lowell, Massachusetts, is turning the former mill town on its head.
What was once expected to be the year when a minority candidate, possibly from the large Cambodian community, won a seat now hinges on the fate of Lowell High School.
Eight of nine incumbents, including the mayor, are seeking re-election. Some of them have been in the office over a decade.
At stake is whether to renovate the existing high school or to build a new school.
In a city notable for its diversity — taken together, ethnic minorities form a majority — few question the need to do something about the out-of-date but historically significant Lowell High School, built on the site of boading houses that were used for mill workers.
It would cost an estimated $350 million to renovate the centrally located, downtown campus. The alternative is building a new school by Cawley Stadium, currently the Lowell High School (LHS) home field in the Belvidere neighborhood, a predominantly white, well-educated and wealthy enclave.
Building a new school, for a student population that is 70 percent minority, would cost an estimated $334 million and put taxpayers on the hook for $3.2 million in annual transportation costs for students unable to walk to the outlying campus.
On June 20, the City Council voted 5-4 to authorize construction of a new school at the Cawley Stadium site. At least five city council members live in Belvidere. All the council members are white.
Eight days later, the six-member Lowell School Committee, the city’s version of a school board, voted 5-1 to keep the school downtown. All the school committee members are white.
Lowell residents, on each side of the issue, quickly formed rival, active Facebook groups and collected more than 5,000 signatures demanding that the issue be put on the Nov. 7 ballot, deepening a fast-forming divide.
On Aug. 31, the school committee filed suit against the City Council in the Middlesex Superior Court, arguing only the committee held the authority to decide between renovating or new construction.
There are 23 candidates on the City Council ballot for the vote on Tuesday, which will winnow the field to the 18 permitted on the November ballot.
Before the school issue erupted, the big struggle was getting representation for the city’s minorities. Now the only topic that matters to most voters is a candidate’s stance on Lowell High — downtown or Belvidere?
“This is a very crucial election for the city. It is going to affect everybody,” said Sokhary Chau, one of four Cambodian-American candidates from the second-largest Cambodian population in the U.S. The largest is in Long Beach, California.
“This can be good and bad,” Chau added. “The good thing is a lot of people are going to get involved in this election. The bad is the city is dividing.”
Dividing minority candidates
Before the school controversy erupted, the top issue in the City Council vote was how should Lowell respond to a federal lawsuit filed in May that alleges that the city’s at-large, or winner-take-all electoral system discriminated against them and people from their communities running for city offices.
Given the majority of minorities, representation matters. But, what about Lowell High?
First-time candidate Chau, a 44-year-old father of two boys who manages a local law firm, is running for city council. He’s campaigning as a unifier.
“Leaders from different groups support me,” he said. “I can bring all communities together.”
He’s also backing the high school’s 2.9-mile move. Two other Cambodian-American candidates do as well.
But Cambodian-American candidate Vesna Noun, a former councilor, wants the high school to stay downtown on its more than century-old sites, which has been upgraded to a state-of-the-art institution.
“LHS's location in downtown is very important for minority students who find extracurricular activities accessible in the area after school hours,” Noun said.
Noun, a Cambodian-American, who won a seat in 2010, lost when he ran in 2013 and 2015. He agrees the high school issue has created “a big division” among voters and candidates this year.
A call for inside change
Those voters and candidates are also still divided about the federal lawsuit and the issue of minority representation on the City Council.
“The city has to come together and discuss this matter and resolve it internally,” Noun said. “It will affect the reputation of the city, if this matter is handled at the federal court.”
Chau, who like Noun arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in the early 1980s, agrees.
“It is better to change from the inside,” he said, adding he believes there might be “some kind of repercussion from the City Hall,” given the current political environment in the city.
Both Chau and Noun want to see the City Council adopt a mixed electoral system of ward-based and at-large representatives similar to that used in nearby Springfield, which implemented systems very similar to the action sought by Lowell residents in 2006.
Hong Net, a three-term Cambodian-American city councilor in nearby Lynn since 2011, said, “For Lowell, a diverse city, a mixed electoral system is good for the whole city, because minority candidates have a better chance of winning.”
At-large councilors focus on developments, tax rates, budgets and creating ordinances in the city, while ward-based councilors work on responding to all concerns of minority groups who have not had any representation from their community at the City Council, said Net, who escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide and arrived in the U.S. in late 1982.
Although Noun disagrees with his three fellow Cambodian-American candidates over the high school debate, for him, this election is “very meaningful,” he said. “Because I hope one or more of us would win.”
‘Dissatisfaction and disconnection’
Amid the lawsuits, and the high school dispute, newly minted candidates, such as Chau, are calling for a change in the government leadership.
Since 1999 only four candidates from Asian or Hispanic communities have been elected to the City Council. Voters have never selected a minority candidate for the Lowell School Committee.
“There are a lot of dissatisfaction and disconnection to the local government,” Chau said. “I hope to bring diversity and new ideas, pretty much new faces to the city.”
Mathew LeLacheur, a white candidate for City Council, said he wants to see minority involvement at all levels of government, regardless of the outcome in November.
LeLacheur, who grew up in Lowell during the influx of the Southeast Asian immigrants, said, “What I would like to see happen is that more [of the Cambodian] community are on more of our boards, more on our commissions.”
But what about the high school? LeLacheur is Team Belvidere all the way.