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For Cambodian-American, a Lesson on Winning in Losing Congressional Bid

Bopha Malone is a former candidate for Massachusetts' 3rd District in U.S. Congress. (Courtesy photo of Bopha Malone)

Bopha Malone lost her bid to become a Democratic candidate but she was part of a wave of women running for office, a move that “inspired” younger women in the community to follow her.

Bopha Malone set out to win the race to represent residents of the Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District in Massachusetts, filing papers and meeting deadlines throughout the summer.

The September 4 Democratic primary to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Niki Tsongas, 71, who opted out of seeking re-election, was a nine-way contest notable for its ethnic and gender diversity.

Malone and Juana Matias are both immigrants, Rufus Gifford is gay, Alexandra Chandler is a transgender woman, Daniel Koh and Beej Das are the sons of immigrants.The field included a former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, a senior aide to former President Barack ObamaBut Malone, and a Naval Intelligence veteran.

"I think we got sick of others, especially white men making decisions for us, in regards to our body and the ways we live," said Malone, a vice president at the Enterprise Bank in Lowell, Massachusetts, which has one of the largest Cambodian-American enclaves in the United States. “I feel that is one of the reasons why a lot of women, [including myself], are running.”

They all lost to Lori Trahan, a 40-year resident of the district who described the field, including Malone, as having in common “a core belief that now more than ever, we need more voices in Washington who are going to stand up to Donald Trump.” She faces Republican Rick Green and Independent Mike Mullen on election day, November 6.

Malone, married to an American and the mother of two children, describes her primary loss as a positive family event because it taught a good lesson. Or as her daughter, Taevy Malone, said to VOA Khmer about her mother, “She’s always told me to be confident, and that I can do amazing things when I grow up. I feel like every day she likes to help people and it makes me feel that I want to be like her.”

Bopha Malone, a former candidate for Congress in MA, pictured with her husband and children. (Courtesy photo of Bopha Malone)
Bopha Malone, a former candidate for Congress in MA, pictured with her husband and children. (Courtesy photo of Bopha Malone)

And just having a Cambodia-American in the primary race benefited the community.

“I think the advantage of having a Cambodian member running for a seat encourages people to go out and vote,” said Sovanna Pouv, executive director of Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell. “She is part of a movement and that is something to celebrate as well.”

Malone’s district reflects something happening throughout the United States. She and Trahan belong to a spike in the number of women running for U.S. Congress this year, candidates women such as Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American running in Minnesota, Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib, who was the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan Legislature, and Gina Ortiz Jones in Texas, the daughter of an immigrant.

"We've never seen anything like this," said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List, which recruits and trains female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights, told NPR in February.

The phenomenon is particularly evident in the Democratic Party, which has nominated 183 women for the House of Representatives and 15 for the Senate, 12 for governorships and 2,380 for state legislatures.

Some of what Schriock called “this” might be a reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose candidacy survived the revelation of past lewd comments about women. Trump's election and inauguration kicked off a nationwide movement. Women took to the streets the day after his inauguration January 20, 2017, many wearing "pussy hats," which referred to Trump’s taped bragging about sexual assault.

More recently, in the final weeks of the current campaign season, Trump has mocked a victim of sexual assault, and called another woman “horse-face.”

"Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving in terms of motivation to stay engaged and stay involved and not lose your enthusiasm," said Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in an interview with NPR.

The 3rd Congressional District in Massachusetts is “quirky”, said Boston University professor Thomas Whalen in an interview with the Boston Globe, the state’s leading newspaper. He explained this meant the voters back candidates who have been active in the community, and local issues--- jobs, health care, education and opioid epidemic---take precedence over national ones.

The district includes 37 cities or towns that moderately reflect a diverse community – 78 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian – with a median household income of $75,654, according to U.S. Census data.

For a first-time candidate like Malone, a vice president of Enterprise Bank in Lowell, the primary race was “scary” at times. Although Malone lost--- of 85,570 votes cast, 1,365 votes were for her---fellow candidates admired her grit.

“She is incredibly smart, passionate, and caring about making the world a better place and investing in people,” said Koh, a Korean-American first-time candidate who came second after Trahan.

“It was an honor to run alongside her for the campaign,” Koh told VOA Khmer.

No matter how scary it was, Malone says she ran because “I wanted to make sure that everyone has the same equal opportunity to thrive just like I did, and that means education and health care.”

Lura Smith, who has lived in Lowell for more than four decades, is one of Malone’s mentors. She recognizes Malone’s leadership commitment and willingness to help others in the community. “I’ve seen her touch the life of so many people, taking time to help others along the way,” Smith told VOA.

Over the past 10 years, Malone has participated in numerous leadership initiatives at various organizations including Women Working Wonders, Working Cities Challenge, Community Teamwork Inc., Middlesex Community College and Lowell General Hospital.

Even though Malone lost, she’s taking steps to be part of change in the community, Smith said.

“And here I’m speaking of Bopha, who says whether or not I got into the Congress or not, I’m going to maintain my position to be a part of the change that I want to see happen,” said Smith. “I mean that is who she is.”

Born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 1980, Malone grew up in a household that valued hard work. She and her parents survived the Khmer Rouge genocide that took place between 1975 and 1979, claiming more than 1.7 million people.

When Malone was about 9 years old, her family landed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That was in 1989, when as refugees who’d spent the past six years in Thailand topped off by six months in the Philippines, they had nothing but a bag of clothing.

Bopha Malone (the bottom right) was pictured with family and friends at a refugee camp in Philippines, where she and her family spent six months before settling in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1989. (Courtesy photo of Bopha Malone)
Bopha Malone (the bottom right) was pictured with family and friends at a refugee camp in Philippines, where she and her family spent six months before settling in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1989. (Courtesy photo of Bopha Malone)

But they built a life in America, and that is another part of why Malone ran for office. She tells her story: 2005 graduate of Lesley University in nearby Lynn, Massachusetts, Malone used her business management degree to land her first post-graduation job at Enterprise Bank.

Trump administration policies on refugees, like her family, and other immigrant groups are “inhumane,” she said.

“When he was first elected, one of his first policies was the travel ban,” said Malone. “Even though we were here legally, my mother heard about this, and she was scared to leave the country. There I was, explaining to her that she didn’t do anything wrong and that she is going to be fine,” she recalled.

“Our nation was so divided. There are a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric. As a refugee and immigrant myself, I want to make sure that we are able to show that immigrants are people that help make our economy and country strong,” said Malone. “That’s what the value of who we are.”

Malone says young Cambodian-American women have reached out to her and told her: “ ‘Your story has really inspired me and has helped me realized that I, too, can do this’.”

“To me,” said Malone. “That was winning.”