For the first time in US local political history, two Cambodian-born candidates are facing off in state legislature elections to represent the 18th Middlesex District at the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
The 18th district’s incumbent representative and Democratic Party candidate Rady Mom is being challenged by Republican candidate Kamara Kay in the November 8 vote.
Both are Cambodian-born American citizens, and share strikingly similar journeys that brought them to compete in US politics.
Mom and Kay were child survivors of the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s.
They escaped their war-torn country for refugee camps including Khao-I-Dang in neighboring Thailand, where they lived in the early 1980s before finding refuge in the US.
Both became naturalized US citizens in the early 1990s.
Both now live in Lowell, MA, a former mill town located on the Merrimack River roughly 40 kilometers from Boston. Lowell is home to an estimated 30,000 Cambodians.
Mom and Kay have similar campaign platforms: Improvements to the educational system, expanding economic opportunities, and improving public safety, to name a few.
How to tackle these policy issues is where Mom and Kay diverge.
Mom says his first priority is to make firing a gun at a home dwelling a felony charge.
Gang violence has been a serious safety issue for the 18th district, which includes parts of Lowell city - home to the second largest Cambodian community in the US after Long Beach, CA.
“In all of the Commonwealth [of] Massachusetts, we have a lot of problems with drive-by-shooting,” 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.”
A bill to make shooting at homes a felony has passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and will now go to the Senate for further debate, Mom said.
Though also concerned with public safety, Kay believes Mom’s effort to introduce a new felony charge duplicates laws already in place.
“It is a waste of time. The bill will not go anywhere,” Kay told VOA Khmer.
Kay said a bill focused on education reform in Lowell would be a priority from his first day in office, if elected.
“We need to pass a comprehensive education bill which expands the charter schools,” he said, but also clarifying that he is not in favor of eliminating public schools.
Mom, who is currently a member of the Massachusetts House's education committee, 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.
Both candidates agree on the need to expand job opportunities in Lowell, where an estimated 30 percent of the population are of Cambodian heritage.
“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,” he said.
Mom wants to build solid infrastructure that will facilitate commercial activity, and more jobs, inside and outside the city.
“There are companies that are coming to [the] Lowell area,” Mom said, adding that he is hoping to trigger an “economic boom” with his policies.
Among his accomplishments as the 18th district’s representative, Mom cites a new energy-efficient $200-million courtroom project, and as well as expansion of Lowell’s business area known as Cupples Square.
Criticizing Mom’s track record in office, Kay said his Democratic Party rival played no important role in the improvements seen in Lowell.
“He just attached his name with the things that have already been in motion to complete,” Kay said.
Massachusetts is a key state for the Democrats.
The 160-member Massachusetts House of Representatives currently has 126 seats held by the Democrats, and 34 held by Republicans.
Each member represents a district and serves a two-year term. The representatives meet year round to debate and pass legislation, develop budget plans and allocations, and decide on taxation.
Due to the overwhelming number of Democrats in the state lawmaking body, Mom said it would be difficult for Kay, a Republican, to get anything done if he were elected.
“Imagine as a Republican trying to do anything. You have zero chance. That’s the reality,” Mom said during a public debate last week, hosted by the Lowell Sun newspaper and broadcast live on its Facebook page.
Though an outside challenger, Kay said his decision to run in the election was due to a strong call by local people. He said many voters no longer trust Mom.
“I had so much admiration from the people, from the voters, asking me to run against him, as they feel distrust [for] him,” Kay said, adding that it is important that the leader of the district is “transparent.”
Though they represent different political parties, Mom and Kay are united in their pride at being Cambodians, US citizens, and living in a country of opportunity and freedom where both have raised families.
Mom, 46, has been a member of the City of Lowell Empowerment Zone since 1998, and is a father of four children. He was first elected to the state house two years ago. He works as an acupuncture therapist and has lived in Lowell some 30 years.
Kay, a 44-year-old father of three children, is currently a senior analyst in IT disaster recovery. He lived in Lowell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before moving to Georgia, where he worked with the Georgia Defense Force, he said. He returned to Lowell some three years ago.
But they hold different views on politics in the country of their birth, where the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has ruled for almost four decades.
Mom believes Cambodian politics should stay in Cambodia.
“I am running for the issues at hand, which is right here,” Mom said at the debate in Lowell last week.
“That is why I don’t spend my focus on the politics that is in Cambodia.”
Some members of the local Cambodian community, however, have accused Mom of being sympathetic to Hun Sen’s regime after a 2015 trip to Cambodia during which he met with the prime minister.
During their recent debate, Kay focusedon Mom’s absence from protests in March against the visit to Lowell of the prime minister’s eldest son, Hun Manet.
Hun Manet’s visit to Cambodia sparked protests in Lowell and Long Beach by members of the Cambodian diaspora who accuse the ruling party of grave human rights abuses and subverting the democratic process.
“He was nowhere to be found,” Kay said of Mom’s lack of participation in a protest he organized against Hun Manet’s visit at Lowell City Hall. "He didn't want to do any of that."
Mom says his focus is on improving lives and public services in Lowell for the citizens who live in the 18th district.
With less than two weeks until the vote for the 18th district’s representative, both Mom and Kay said they will do what is best for Lowell if successful in the election.
“I love representing and working on behalf of my constituents to seek what is best for Lowell and especially for my district,” Mom said.
That was a message echoed by Kay.
“I truly want to represent the interest of the entire 18th district, including the people of Lowell,” he said.
“I will be [at the] forefront, letting them know what are the challenges and the things we are committed to do as a community.”