LOWELL, MASSACHUSETTS - A Massachusetts House district that was the first to elect a Cambodian-American to a legislature now has two more residents of Cambodian descent who are hoping to get involved in state politics.
The two newcomers and the incumbent are all vying to represent Massachusetts' 18th Middlesex District, home to the city of Lowell and the second-largest population of Cambodian-Americans in the country, behind Long Beach, California.
“It’s a free country, and it is very good that other Cambodian candidates are running against me,” Rady Mom, the district's current representative, told VOA's Khmer service. “I think [they] will bring new ideas for better improvement.”
Born in northwestern Cambodia’s Pailin district in 1970 and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1990, Mom, 46, made history in 2014 when he became the first Cambodian-American elected to a state legislature in the U.S. He said his ultimate goal as a legislator was to become a “voice of the voiceless.”
Now, two fellow Cambodian-Americans are competing to have their voices heard instead.
Alongside Mom on the Democratic ticket are Cambodian-American Cheth Khim and fellow Lowell resident David M. Ouellette; the unopposed Republican candidate is Cambodian-American Kamara Kay.
IT analyst's agenda
Born in Cambodia's Battambang province, Kay, 44, arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 1982. A senior analyst at an information technology firm, he said he was encouraged to run for the legislature by people who questioned Mom’s achievements and wanted to see greater changes in the Lowell's Cambodian-American community.
“People in Lowell whom I talked to encouraged me to run because they believe I can serve them better,” said Kay, an alumnus of Norwich and DeVry universities. If elected, Kay said, he plans to work on improving local employment opportunities, expanding local investment and increasing access to broadband networks.
Khim, 44, speaks strongly of his established connection with voters, saying he wanted to amplify the voice of the whole community, especially the voices of young people.
“Even though I am not holding any official position, I have worked very hard to help people become U.S. citizens and to get access to disability benefits,” Khim said. “I help everyone — including Khmer people.”
Also born in Cambodia's Battambang province, Khim arrived in the U.S. with his family when he was 10 years old. Describing himself as having a background in law, Khim is executive director of the Cupples Square Committee, which has worked closely with business owners and city officials in Lowell's so-called “Cambodia Town.”
Incumbent touts achievements
According to Mom, however, while Kay and Khim have the ambition, his demonstrable achievements since assuming office still make him a solid candidate.
“I’ve witnessed how the city has developed, and I’m proud to be part of the change,” said Mom, who arrived in the U.S. as refugee in 1984 and attended Greater Lowell Regional Vocational School and Middlesex Community College.
Among Mom’s achievements in office, he lists expansion of business opportunities, better infrastructure and ongoing development projects in Lowell, including a new energy-efficient $200 million courtroom project, which is touted as a model for the future design of civic buildings in the U.S.
“These are some of the works I’ve brought to fruition by working hand in hand with others,” he said. “I believe people recognize what I’ve done for the community, and I hope people elect me to continue to be their representative.”
Across Lowell, home to more than 30,000 first-generation Cambodian migrants, response to the Cambodian-American competition for Mom's post is mixed.
Locals do not oppose fellow Cambodian-Americans' bids for office, but they have reservations about how effective the candidates might be.
“I think it’s very good that more Cambodians go out there to compete, but only if they genuinely want to make better changes to the society,” said Lowell resident Vannak Men, 41.
Hong Khun, 51, said he hoped the diversity of candidates would result in a diversity of ideas.
“It’s good to see new candidates from our community run for elections, because they help bring new ideas,” he said.
But not all agree. Linda Doeung, 55, the owner of a Cambodian restaurant in Lowell, said she thought having more Cambodian-Americans on the ballot would weaken the thriving community's political unity.
“This rise of candidates can divide our votes,” Doeung said.
More information sought
Sovanndara Neang, 55, said the candidates should get to know the voters better.
“To be hopeful for the victory, I think our community has to know each candidate better, which does not seem to be the case,” he said.
Candidates need to connect with the local community, because Cambodian-American voters tend to vote for people they know, Sovanna Pouv, head of the local Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, told VOA Khmer.
“I think the only time that people are going to vote is when they know or recognize somebody from the community that is running for a specific position,” he said.
Liang Sidney, who leads a civic engagement project at Lowell Community Health Center, agreed that it is often difficult to persuade people to vote.
“They don’t see much the importance of their voice, but we are still hopeful to get more people to go to vote,” he said.
Lowell’s Cambodian-American community must be united and vote if it wants to prosper, said Vesna Nuon, a former Lowell city councilor.
“It takes only 20 minutes to go to vote," he said. "Doing so will help our community to grow stronger together.”
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer service.