In what was once expected to be the year when voters in Lowell, Massachusetts, voted a Cambodian-American onto the City Council, just two made it out of the preliminary field and onto the final ballot.
Today, all nine city councilors in the old mill town are white, even though ethnic minorities taken together are 49.2 percent of the population,110,558 people. Cambodians are the largest ethnic group in Lowell, and are the the second largest group in the United States after Long Beach, California.
But a battle over the fate of Lowell High school has hijacked hopes for gaining representation for ethnic minorities on the City Council. The question dividing voters is whether to renovate the exiting downtown school or should build a new school in Belvidere, an outlying neighborhood that is largely white and well-to-do.
On Tuesday, Lowell voters sent narrowed a field of 23 candidates for city council to 18 for the November 7 election. Of the four Cambodian-Americans on the preliminary ballot, only two made the final cut. Six out of top nine slots went to candidates who want to keep Lowell High downtown.
“I was surprised to see a lot of people going to vote in the preliminary election this year,” says Sidney Liang, a Cambodian American community activist -- 7,680 voted in 2017 as opposed to 3,915 in the 2015 preliminaries.
Liang pointed out that candidates who did not take a stance on the school location or were against renovating the high school either lost or barely made the final cut. He believes the school will remain the priority for voters in November. The group “Save Lowell High” has gathered enough signatures for the issue to be on the ballot.
Sokhary Chau, one of the Cambodian Americans who made the cut on September 26, told VOA Khmer that the results failed to reflect all Lowell voters.
Of the 38 percent of registered voters who cast ballots, a substantial block supporting the renovation came from Belvidere. But even without Belvidere vote, five out of top nine candidates are pro-downtown location.
Chau, who came in 15th in the preliminary vote on his first bid for elective office, believes he would have received more votes if the high school issue had not dominated the campaign.
"It is disappointing to see that people who get the higher vote, just simply because of the simple issue of the downtown [high school] location," Chau said.
Vesna Noun, a former city councilor and Cambodian-American, came in fourth and favors renovation.
Noun said his high school stance helped him because “the school location matters a lot for this election.”
“You have to listen to people concerns, and this is how they responded with their votes reflecting their choice [of the matter],” he said.
Noun says, if elected, he is going “to push for change” in the City Council.
Aside from renovating Lowell High, he would work to change the city’s electoral system from solely at-large or winner-take-all system to a mixed system of ward-based and at-large system.
His second promise refers to a federal lawsuit filed by the minority residents against the city in May, alleging the city’s at-large electoral system “discriminated” against them and people from their communities running for public offices.
The city has yet to decide how to respond -- whether or not to form a charter commission or to reach a special act to have its electoral system of at-large changed through a non-binding ballot.