With the midterm vote in the United States, Cambodians in Massachusetts adapt their local power

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For Cambodian American residents of Lowell, Massachusetts, the upcoming midterm vote is an opportunity to voice their concerns on a list of familiar local concerns across the United States – potholes, schools and housing costs.

Sreang Heng, the Cambodian owner of Heng Heng Auto Repair near the Koumantzelis Park-Roberto Clemente baseball field in Lowell, said the potholes were taking their toll on his customers’ vehicles, which came to him with tires and damaged tie rods. Although it means more work for auto repair shops like his, he prefers not to have it because of the social cost, especially for those who cannot afford to do all the necessary repairs in one go. time.

“Most of them complain that the spare parts are expensive because the taxes are already included, so they negotiate for the reduced service charge,” said the 46-year-old who arrived in the United States in 2016.

Located on the Merrimack River, Lowell is 50 kilometers north of Boston. An early center of America’s once-thriving textile industry, Lowell has attracted European and Latin American immigrants since the 19th century. In the 1980s, Cambodian refugees fleeing the civil war and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime began to arrive. Today, the city of about 115,000 people is almost 25% Asian and home to the second largest Cambodian community in the country after Long Beach, California.

But in a city where minorities are close to the majority, according to U.S. Census data, white residents held most elected positions until recently.

The change came when a coalition of Latin American and Asian residents filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2017. Their attorney, Oren Sellstrom, argued that Lowell violated his clients’ right to vote by electing officials to city ​​scale. The plaintiffs and the city settled in 2019, agreeing to establish wards that better represented the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

The changes in Lowell mirror those spreading to the United States, which the census says will have a majority minority population within decades. And the evolution of the Cambodian community as a community from nominal representation to the exercise of political power in the city and state is a well-worn path of assimilation by earlier immigrant groups.

Lowell now has eight districts, including two with a majority of nonwhite voters. The city elected a Cambodian-born mayor, Sokhary Chau, in 2021. He took office in January along with two Cambodian-American council members who were also born in Cambodia.

Mony Var, 56, is the first Cambodian to work for the Lowell Electoral Commission. In the 1990s, the city had 30,000 Cambodian residents, but only 123 Cambodians were registered to vote. Today, around 2,000 Cambodians are registered to vote. He said midterm and primary elections are as important to the community as general elections.

Mony Var, who arrived in the United States in 1980, said that while voters may be disinterested in interim elections, “All elections are important. We must seize the moment and fulfill the duty to vote in every election. Do not not just come and vote in the presidential election.”

The medium-term focus of the Cambodian community on issues such as potholes and schools suggests the validity of the oft-repeated maxim of American life, “All politics is local.”

Sovann Khorn, who arrived in the United States from Cambodia via Khao-i-Dang refugee camp in Thailand, runs a party service business that also offers wedding video and photography and party rentals. dresses. The 57-year-old wants Lowell Schools to crack down on student misbehavior and limit their video game time.

Rodney Elliott, former mayor of Lowell and member of the city council, is a Democrat running for state representative for Middlesex’s 16th district against Republican Karla Miller. The neighborhood is home to many Cambodians.

Elliott, who is not Cambodian but has visited Cambodia twice, said when he was mayor in 2014 that he raised $300,000 for the victims of a fatal fire, some of whom were Cambodian. He also commissioned a statue of Cambodian refugees for the front yard of City Hall.

Miller, who is looking for an office for the first time, said there were few Cambodians in Chelmsford, his home base.

“I would like to reach out to the Cambodian community. … This is my first rodeo, so I don’t know a lot of people in different communities,” she said.

State Representative for Middlesex’s 17th District, Vanna Howard, 52, arrived from Cambodia in 1980.

In 2020, she was the first Cambodian woman elected as a state representative in the United States, motivated by “the need to give back to a place that has been so good to me,” according to her website.

Howard is running unopposed for re-election this year. She told VOA Khmer that voters are asking her for help with various issues, including unemployment and improving schools, roads and bridges.

“And another is housing,” the Democrat said. Lowell faces a housing shortage and the options available are expensive, she said, adding: “They want [my] help prevent house prices from rising too much, [to find] housing funds. »

The Mony Var insurance company owner, 56, came to the US in 1981 and now lives in the 18th Middlesex House District. He said local officials “should listen to business people in the area to draft a high-level business law that helps local businesses[es] prosper and bring other businessmen to our region.

Veteran state representative Rady Mom, 54, who arrived in 1982, is a Democrat and is running unopposed after defeating two Cambodian-born challengers for Middlesex House’s 18th district in the September 6 primary. According to US Census data, the district’s population is approximately 41% white, 32% Asian, 17% Hispanic, and 7% black. Thirty-one percent of residents were born overseas.

John Cluverius, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, told Boston public radio station WGBH ahead of the primary that the race between three Cambodian-born candidates showed how community goes beyond just search for representation.

“It’s no longer this coalition and this community fighting for its political existence or mere representation,” Cluverius told WGBH. “But, instead, you see a community that’s like any other community with political power, which is to say the divisions within start to emerge more, and so you start to see challenges within this community for the representatives in place in this community.”

Or as Rady Mom, who in 2014 became the first Cambodian American state legislator in the United States, put it: “My role is to listen to people, to convey their messages. If I don’t work for them, every two years voters can vote. me and choose my challenger. That’s democracy.”

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