Rady Mom made history when he won election to become the first ever Cambodian-American elected to a state legislature. (Screenshot of Rady Mom's website)
Rady Mom made history when he won election to become the first ever Cambodian-American elected to a state legislature. (Screenshot of Rady Mom's website)

For the first time in U.S. political history, two Cambodian-born candidates are facing off in a state legislative election.  

The candidates are running to represent the 18th Middlesex District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

The district's incumbent representative, Democrat Rady Mom, is being challenged by Republican Kamara Kay.  Despite their differing opinions on how to resolve local issues, both naturalized U.S. citizens followed strikingly similar paths to the campaign trail.

As child survivors of the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, both escaped their war-torn country for refugee camps in the early 1980s. After becoming naturalized U.S. citizens in the early 1990s, both men came to call Lowell, a former mill town on the Merrimack River, home. Lowell's estimated 30,000 Cambodians — the second-largest Khmer diaspora community in the United States, after Long Beach, California — have seen gang violence on the rise.

Education, jobs, crime

While Mom and Kay have similar campaign platforms, pledging to work for improved education, expanded economic opportunities and increased public safety, their respective approaches to addressing these issues diverge widely.

Mom, 46 and a father of four, said his first priority if re-elected would be to secure ratification of a bill he sponsored to make firing a gun at a dwelling a felony.

"We have a lot of problems with drive-by shootings," Mom told VOA Khmer in a recent interview.  "This is why I work with the chief of police, the city councilors, the mayor and also the city manager."

But Kay said the bill would only duplicate existing laws.

"It is a waste of time," Kay, 44, a father of three who has also positioned himself as tough on crime, told VOA Khmer. "The bill will not go anywhere."

Kay, a senior analyst in IT disaster recovery, said municipal-level education reform would be his first priority if elected.

"We need to pass a comprehensive education bill, which expands the charter schools," he said, emphasizing his opposition to elimination of public schools.

A member of the House Education Committee, Mom, a licensed acupuncture therapist who was first elected in 2014, said the most important education issue for public officials to address is the "lack of proper oversight" of charter schools, and not a new education bill.

A senior analyst at an IT firm, Kamara Kay said he
FILE - A senior analyst at an IT firm, Kamara Kay said he was encouraged to run for the legislature by people who question Rady Mom’s achievements as state representative for the 18th Middlesex District. (Screenshot of Kamara Kay's website)

Need for jobs

Both candidates agree on the need to expand local job opportunities.

"There are a lot of immigrants who want to succeed," Kay said. "In order for them to be successful, we need to get them into vocational training to give them necessary skills, so that they can compete for a good-paying job."

Mom wants to build solid infrastructure that would trigger an "economic boom" that creates more jobs inside and outside the city.

Among his accomplishments as the 18th District's representative, Mom cites a new energy-efficient, $200 million courtroom, along with expansion of the Cupples Square business hub.

Criticizing Mom's track record in office, Kay said his rival played no important role in Lowell's recent improvements.

"He just attached his name with the things that have already been in motion," Kay said.

But in a state lawmaking body dominated by Democrats, who hold 126 of 160 seats, Mom said it would be difficult for Kay, a Republican, to get anything done.

"Imagine as a Republican trying to do anything. You have zero chance. That is the reality," Mom said during last week's public debate hosted by the Lowell Sun.

Regardless, Kay said his decision to run was the result of calls from disgruntled voters asking him to challenge Mom.

Shadow of Phnom Penh

While both candidates are proud of their Cambodian heritage, discussion of Prime Minister Hun Sen's four-decade rule in Phnom Penh reveals another fissure.

"I am running for the issues at hand, which is right here," said Mom, who was once accused of sympathizing with Sen's regime after a 2015 trip to Cambodia, during which he met with the prime minister. "That is why I don't spend my focus on the politics that is in Cambodia."

During their recent debate, Kay focused on Mom's absence from protests over a March 2016 visit by the prime minister's eldest son, Hun Manet, a top Cambodian military official who was faced with demonstrations over grave human rights abuses and subversion of the democratic process at the hands of his father's ruling party.

"He was nowhere to be found," Kay said of a protest organized at Lowell City Hall. "He didn't want to do any of that."

With less than two weeks until Election Day, both Mom and Kay said they would do what was best for Lowell if successful in the election.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer service.