First Cambodian American mayor takes office in the United States

BOSTON (AP), -- The first Cambodian American mayor has been elected by a refugee who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

First Cambodian American mayor takes office in the United States

Sokhary Chau (a Lowell city councilor) was unanimously chosen by his peers to take over the top position in the legislative body on Monday. He was also elected the first Asian American mayor of the city.

"God bless America!" After being officially sworn into office, the 49-year old, who works for U.S. Social Security Administration, stated that she was a refugee and now is mayor of Massachusetts. "I don’t know if it could happen anywhere else in this world. It's still something I am trying to absorb."

In his inaugural remarks Chau reflected on the perilous escape of his family from Cambodia and the former industrial town of Lowell's deep immigrant roots.

Lowell, which is located near the New Hampshire state border on the Merrimack River, was an early center for America's textile industry. It attracted waves of Latin American and European immigrants over the years.

The city, which has more than 115,000 inhabitants, is almost 25% Asian. It also houses the country's second-largest Cambodian population.

Chau spoke Monday to a crowd of about 100 people, including his wife and two teenage boys.

Chau recalled how his father, a captain of the Cambodian army's Cambodian Army, was killed by the communist Khmer Rouge during 1975's civil war.

According to him, his mother, who died last January, was able to keep her seven children alive over four years. She survived "landmines and jungles, hunger, sickness, uncertainty" to get them safely to the U.S.

Chau stated that America may not have "streets pave with gold" like his family thought while they were living in refugee camps. But, democracy is possible due to "systems of checks & balances" and principles such as fairness, equality, and transparency.

Later, Chau stated that he was 9 years old at the time his family settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with the assistance of the Catholic Church. This experience prompted him to convert to Christianity.

In the middle of the 1980s, they made their way to Lowell's growing Cambodian population. There, some of his older brothers set about working in local factories.

Chau continued his education and was awarded a scholarship to Phillips Academy in Andover. He continued his studies at Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota. There he studied political science and economics, also on scholarship.

Chau stated that he was a former employee of financial services before running for office. He also managed a Lowell mortgage lending company with his wife, prior to the crash in the housing market in 2000.

Chau's election follows that of Michelle Wu, the new Boston mayor. Wu's parents are from Taiwan and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. As Boston's first woman elected to the office and as the first person of color, she was sworn into office last November.

According to Vannak Theng (president of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell), Chau is also one of the increasing number of Cambodian American officeholders.

According to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies in Washington, which helps Asian Pacific Americans seek public office, Cambodian Americans were on many local boards and state legislatures across the country, but none of them were elected mayor.

According to the organization, Long Beach in California, which is home to the largest Cambodian community in the country, elected its first Cambodian American councilor in 2020.

The federal court lawsuit against Lowell alleges that Lowell's election process violated voting rights of minorities residents. Nearly half of Lowell's population is minority.

The city changed its election process after a recent settlement in the case. It will now begin with the 2021 elections. Oren Sellstrom from Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, who was the litigation director for the case, stated that the result was the city’s most diverse class officeholders.

Sellstrom stated that "Just four years ago the city's elected representatives were all white and largely insensitive to the needs city's communities" Under the old electoral system, this historic shift in the city's power structure wouldn't have been possible.

Lowell's mayoral office is, to be certain, primarily ceremonial.

A city manager is appointed by the council to run the city, which is located about 30 miles (50 km) north of Boston. The mayor serves as the council's president and chairperson, leading meetings and serving as the city's chair of its school committee.

Despite this, Chau recognized the importance of his election to the wider Cambodian diaspora and called on others to support their communities.

He said, "We cannot continue to be victims," as he concluded his inaugural remarks. "It's our time to lead and succeed."

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