Massachusetts is witnessing a surge of interest by Cambodian-Americans hoping to get involved in state politics.
Three Cambodian-Americans are squaring off as contenders for election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for the 18th Middlesex District – home to the city of Lowell and the second largest population of Cambodian-Americans in the US.
“It’s a free country, and it is very good that other Cambodian candidates are running against me,” Rady Mom, the current State Representative for the 18th Middlesex District, told VOA Khmer.
“I think [they] will bring new ideas for better improvement,” said Mom, who was elected in 2014.
Born in Cambodia’s Pailin district in northwestern Cambodia in 1970 and naturalized as a US citizen in 1990, Mom made history when he won election to become the first ever Cambodian-American elected to a state legislature.
The 46-year-old Mom is now running again for the 18th Middlesex District in the primary election on September 8.
Arriving in the US with his family as a refugee in 1984, Rady said his mission as state representative has been to act as a “voice of the voiceless, and serving the people is my ultimate goal.”
Now he has competition. Two more Cambodian-Americans are hoping that their voices will be heard in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Alongside Mom on the Democratic Party’s ticket are Cambodian-American Cheth Khim (as well as David M. Ouellette), and the unopposed party candidate for the Republicans is Cambodian-American Kamara Kay.
Born in Cambodia's Battambang province, Kay, 44, arrived in the US as a refugee in 1982.
A senior analyst at an IT firm, Kay said he was encouraged to run for the legislature by people who question Mom’s achievements, and who want to see greater changes in the Cambodia-American community.
“People in Lowell whom I talked to encouraged me to run because they believe I can serve them better,” he said.
Kay said he is looking forward to working on improving employment opportunities and expanding local investment, as well as increasing access to broadband networks.
“I’m hopeful to win,” said Kay, who holds an undergraduate degree from Norwich University and a graduate degree from DeVry University.
“But it all depends on the people who trust me and vote for me,” he adds.
Mom’s fellow Democratic Party candidate Cheth Khim, 44 years old, speaks strongly of his efforts to appeal to voters, and says he wants to make the voice of the whole community heard, especially young people.
“Even though I am not holding any official position, I have worked very hard to help people become US citizens and to get access to disability benefits,” Khim said.
“I help everyone,” he said, “including Khmer people.”
Also born in Cambodia's Battambang province, Khim arrived in the US with his family when he was 10 years old. He says he had a background in law and is currently the executive director of the Cupples Square Committee, which has worked closely with business owners and city officials in the area of Lowell known as “Cambodian Town”.
“I am not biased against any groups, and my main goal is to work for the district and the Lowell community, and I stand for justice,” Khim said.
“A lot of people want to see me run, and I am very confident with my candidacy given what I’ve done for the community.”
While Kay and Khim have the ambition, Mom has the experience of two years in office, and demonstrable achievements during that time, he said.
“I’ve witnessed how the city has developed, and I’m proud to be part of the change,” said Mom, who arrived as refugee in the US 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 US.
“These are some of the work 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.”
Rise of Cambodian Candidates Receives Mixed Reactions
In Lowell, where there are more than 30,000 first generation Cambodian migrants, feelings are mixed about the increase in Cambodian-American candidates vying for the position that Mom first opened for their community.
It is not that they don’t support more Cambodian-Americans wanting to be involved in politics. It is more about how effective the candidates will 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 41-year-old Lowell resident Vannak Men.
Hong Khun, 51, said he hoped the diversity of candidates would mean a diversity of ideas.
“It’s good to see new candidates from our community to run for elections because they help bring new ideas,” he said.
Not all agreed.
Linda Doeung, 55, the owner of a Cambodian restaurant in Lowell, believes the increase in candidates will weaken the vote overall for the Cambodian-American community.
“This rise of candidates can divide our votes,” Doeung said.
“I think the white community likes to see that happen,” she said.
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 make a connection with the local community, as Cambodian-American voters tend to vote for the 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 convince people to go 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 come together, 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. Doing so will help our community to grow stronger together,” he said.