Making History, Two Cambodians Vie for Same U.S. Legislative Seat

Two years after the first Cambodian-born candidate was elected as a U.S. legislator, the seat—to be the state representative for Massachusetts’ 18th district—is once again up for grabs.

This time, in another historic moment, both the incumbent, Democrat Rady Mom, and his Republican challenger, Kamara Kay, are Cambodian-born, and both were refugees of the Khmer Rouge.

Kamara Kay, left, and Rady Mom in photographs posted to their Facebook pages.
Kamara Kay, left, and Rady Mom in photographs posted to their Facebook pages.

Since party primaries were held in September, the candidates have campaigned against each other in the blue-collar East Coast city of Lowell, Massachusetts, about 50 km from Boston and home to nearly 40,000 Cambodians and Cambodian-Americans.

Mr. Mom defeated another Cambodian, Cheth Khim, in the Democratic primary, while Mr. Kay ran unopposed. Since then, Mr. Kay has put up a solid fight for the seat—defying expectations about Asian-American voters, who The New York Times reported are now twice as likely to identify as Democrat than Republican.

The 44-year-old senior IT specialist was born in Battambang province and arrived in the U.S. at age 8, while his 46-year-old Democratic counterpart was born in Pailin province as the son of a ruby miner and village chief. Mr. Mom is an acupuncturist and former Buddhist monk who arrived in the U.S. in 1982 and became a U.S. citizen in 1990.

In a town where Khmer-language signs line the streets and Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy annually campaigns for donations, shadows of politics from the old country linger in the race.

In a recent debate video posted to Facebook by The Lowell Sun, Mr. Kay criticized Mr. Mom over his plans to officially welcome Hun Manet, the oldest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, to the city in March.

“We just asked our elected representative to not have an official welcoming party for Hun Manet,” Mr. Kay said. “The Hun Sen regime in Cambodia has done nothing but oppress the Cambodian people.”

Mr. Mom dodged the question during the debate, saying, “My concern has always been about the 18th district. I don’t save focus for the politics that are on in Cambodia.”

A number of Facebook commenters and residents suggested Mr. Kay’s critique was justified. “Some people feel that Rady Mom supports or is supported by the CPP in Cambodia or the CPP here,” said Tararith Kho, a former editor of the Nou Haich literary journal who now lives in exile in Lowell and supports Mr. Kay.

Mr. Mom could not be reached for comment.

Cambodian politics aside, both candidates have worked their way deep into the affections of their electorate and the state at large.

A Boston Globe headline described Rady Mom as an “antidote to cynicism” a year ago, gushing over his “Vote for Your Mom” yard signs.

Facebook commenters, meanwhile, praised the civility of the pair’s debate, especially when compared to the U.S. presidential debate between rivals Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

The contest has drawn enthusiastic political engagement from the Cambodian community, where people are concerned about taxes and immigration issues, such as Cambodian youths who were born in refugee camps and are now on track for deportation over non-violent drug felonies.

For a poor community with traditionally low turnout, the contest between the two Cambodians is expected to pull many to the polls.

“Cambodian people are interested and they will vote tomorrow,” Mr. Kho said. “A lot voted early.”

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