WASHINGTON - In a sprawling California congressional district that includes some of the nation’s richest farmland and part of one of its poorest cities, a first-time candidate, a Cambodian-American woman, is taking on a well-entrenched Democrat, a white man.
Neither reflects the 16th District’s majority, the 58 percent of residents who identify as Hispanic or Latino. Slightly more than 25 percent identify as white, like Rep. Jim Costa, the Democratic incumbent, and only 8.6 percent are Asian, like Elizabeth Heng, the Republican challenger. Blacks and others make up the remaining chunk of voters.
Republican Heng, 33, a graduate of Fresno public schools, Stanford and Yale universities, aims to flip the district, long dependably Democratic.
“I truly believe that we need new voices with fresh perspective to fight for our community,” said Heng in an interview with VOA Khmer. Although this is her first run for an elected position, Heng is the first Cambodian-American to make it through a primary and run for Congress.
Costa, 66, has represented the district since 2013. He began his political career in 1978 in the California State Assembly, moved up to the State Senate, and from 2005 to 2013, served in the U.S. House of Representative for California’s 20th District, part of which moved into the 16th when district borders changed.
The Costa-Heng race, one he’s likely to win, drew national attention the first week in August after Facebook and Twitter yanked a campaign ad from Heng, who was a registered Democrat before turning right.
The ad showed footage of genocide in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime, which caused the deaths of at least 1.7 million people. Heng said her slogan “Great things can come from great adversary,” referred to her parents’ flight from Cambodia to the United States via Thailand to become successful small business owners in California.
Heng tweeted: “@facebook rejected my video because it was ‘too shocking’ for their platform, referring to the scenes of horrific events my parents survived in Cambodia.”
She also tweeted a copy of the notice she received from Facebook which states, “we don’t allow ads that contain shocking disrespectful or sensational content, including ads that depict violence or threats of violence” and asked “Facebook, do you think it’s right to censor history?”
Conservative outlets including the National Review, chimed in, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, from California’s 23rd Congressional District tweeted support and The San Francisco Chronicle reported conservatives were “irate” at Facebook with many claiming what happened to Heng was the latest example of tech companies trying to censor the right of center.
Facebook restored the ad within days, Twitter reinstated it by midmonth, and the race in California’s 16th returned to key issues such as jobs, water and immigration. And, in the crucial final weeks before the midterm vote, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, the Merced Sun-Star and the Fresno Bee endorsed Costa, who despite repeated requests, did not speak to VOA for this story.
The 16th Congressional District has one of the lowest median household incomes, $43,839, in California, where the median household income is $63,783 according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
“So I believe it’s important for us to invest in areas such as vocational training and career technical training and trade skills,” Heng said. “So, we can provide our community and many people who are struggling in our community with the skillsets that they need to get to the next level, breaking out of this vicious cycle of poverty.”
Welding, electrical and plumbing skills for jobs in construction, and the computer training needed by the tech industry are what people need to get ahead, she said.
Growing up in Fresno
Heng grew up in Fresno. Her parents, mother Siv Khoeu and father Chieu Heng, arrived the U.S. in 1983 after living almost four years under the Khmer Rouge. They began their working lives in the United States as a construction worker and seamstress before saving enough money to buy a Fresno grocery store where Heng worked after classes throughout elementary, middle, and high school.
Heng, valedictorian of Fresno’s Sunnyside High School Class of 2003, attended Stanford University, where she served as student body president during her senior year. Heng, who majored in political science and American politics, told the school newspaper, the Stanford Review, in 2007 that she wanted to work on a presidential campaign and was interested in a career in politics.
After graduating from Stanford, she returned to Fresno where she opened cell phone stores with her brothers. It was when she was managing some 75 employees that she says she realized “how government regulations impacted businesses negatively,” she told the National Review in an interview published before her campaign ad controversy.
Time in D.C.
Fed up, she packed her bags and headed to Washington, where she eventually landed a job with the House Foreign Affairs Committee headed by California Republican, Ed Royce.
She recalls that was where she learned how U.S. foreign aid is distributed worldwide and how, during a visit to Cambodia, she was inspired to do more for the community.
“I realized how different my life could have turned out had my parents not sought refuge in the United States,” Heng told VOA. “And that was a perfect example of why I continue to dedicate my life to service and politics and empowering and holding to the fundamentals of what make this country, the United States, great, but also to use that to great work around the world including places like Cambodia.”
She decided to run for office when she returned to Fresno in 2017. As of Sept. 30, Costa has beaten Heng in the race for campaign contributions, $1,148,149 to $312,732, according to Federal Election Commission reports. The 16th District favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 presidential election by a margin of 21.3 points. Of California’s 53 House seats, Democrats hold 39.
Part of Heng’s effort to flip the district focuses on a get-out-the-vote campaign, so she knocks on a lot of doors.
“We’re doing this every single day to turn people out to vote,” she said. “It’s so important for our community to get involved and so they can be a part of the process.”
Immigration a key issue
Heng, who has made immigration one of her key areas, repeated the Republican line that the current U.S. immigration policy is broken and says that she would work to protect the border and enhance security measure to “prevent criminals and terrorists” from entering the country, but encourage legal immigration, according to her website.
“Immigration is one of the top priorities in my campaign because as you’ve seen in the national media that something that we consistently talk about,” Heng told VOA. “I would love nothing more [than] to be on the forefront of immigration reform and getting that right for our country.”
Sophal Ear, associate professor at Occidental Community College in Los Angeles is a leading authority on Cambodia and the Cambodian diaspora. He said he hopes Heng uses the Cambodian-American narrative in a “meaningful way” and not “simply as a steppingstone for power.”
“Her family’s refugee story of struggle is not just something she ought to exploit for political gain as a Republican candidate,” he said. “She can’t just take that and serve President Trump’s agenda. She ought to remember that to whom much is given, much is expected.”
However, Heng told VOA she would not be “a rubber stamp” for any political party. “I know how Washington D.C. works,” she said. “I know how to hit the ground running to move legislative policy that works.”