A refugee who survived the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge is the first Cambodian American mayor in the United States.
Sokhary Chau, a councilor in Lowell, Massachusetts, was unanimously voted for the top legislature Monday by his fellow councilors. He also became the city’s first Asian-American mayor.
“God bless America, right? I was a refugee, now I’m the mayor of a major Massachusetts city, “said the 49-year-old, who works for the US Social Security Agency, after his official swearing-in. “I don’t know if that’s possible to happen anywhere else in the world. I’m still trying to absorb it. “
In his inaugural address, Chau reflected on his family’s dangerous escape from Cambodia and the deep immigrant roots of the former industrial town of Lowell.
Located on the Merrimack River near the New Hampshire state line, Lowell was an early center of the American textile industry, attracting waves of European and Latin American immigrants for generations.
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Today, the city of more than 115,000 is almost 25 percent Asian and is home to the second largest Cambodian community in the country.
“As a proud Cambodian American, I stand on the shoulders of many immigrants who came before me to build this city,” Chau said Monday in front of a crowd that included his wife and two teenage sons.
Chau told how his father, a captain in the Cambodian army, was executed by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975 during the civil war.
He said his mother, who died last year, managed to keep her seven children alive for four years by surviving “land mines, jungles, hunger, disease and insecurity” to get them safely to the US
Chau said America may not have “streets paved with gold” as his family imagined in refugee camps, but it is a country where democracy is possible based on “systems of control and balance” and principles such as fairness, equality and transparency is.
In an interview later, Chau said he was around 9 years old when his family settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with the help of the Catholic Church – an experience that led the family to convert to Christianity.
They made their way into the growing Cambodian community of Lowell in the mid-1980s, where some of his older siblings immediately started working in local factories.
However, Chau continued his studies and eventually received a scholarship to Phillips Academy, an exclusive boarding school in nearby Andover. He then attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he studied economics and political science, also on a scholarship.
Before running for office, Chau said he worked primarily in the financial services sector, including running a mortgage loan company in Lowell with his wife before the real estate market collapsed in the early 2000s.
Chau’s election follows the rise of the new Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan. She was sworn in last November as Boston’s first woman and first colored person to be elected to the post.
Chau is also on the growing list of Cambodian American officials in Massachusetts: at least two other councilors, a school committee member, and two state lawmakers, all from Lowell, according to Vannak Theng, president of the Greater Lowell Cambodian Association for Mutual Assistance.
But while Cambodian Americans served on local bodies and state legislatures nationwide, no one has been elected mayor or leads mayor, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, a nonprofit Washington nonprofit that helps Asia-Pacific Americans hold public office List of current incumbents.
In fact, Long Beach, California, home to the country’s largest Cambodian community, didn’t elect its first Cambodian American councilor until 2020, the organization noted.
Chau’s election also follows a lawsuit in federal court arguing that Lowell’s electoral process violated the voting rights of minorities, who make up nearly 50% of the population.
A recent settlement in the case prompted the city to change its electoral process starting with the 2021 elections. The result is the most diverse class of incumbents in town, said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston group that filed the lawsuit in 2017.
“Just four years ago, the city’s elected officials were all white and largely unresponsive to the needs of the city’s colored communities,” Sellstrom said. “This historical change in the power structure of the city would never have been possible under the old electoral system.”
The mayor’s office in Lowell is, of course, largely ceremonial.
The city, about 30 miles north of Boston, is run by a city manager chosen by the city council. The mayor is practically the council president, presiding over its meetings and also serving as chairman of the city’s school committee.
Still, Chau recognized the importance of his choice to the wider Cambodian diaspora and urged others to get involved in their communities.
“We can no longer just be victims,” he said at the end of his inaugural address. “Now is the time to be a leader and be successful.”