BORN in a refugee camp in Thailand after his parents fled the Khmer Rouge, Van Pech is poised to become only the second person of Cambodian descent to hold public office in the United States.
The 27-year-old is running for city council in Lowell, Massachusetts, a bustling manufacturing town on America’s Eastern seaboard which has become a quiet magnet for Southeast Asian immigrants.
He’s set to follow in the footsteps of the first elected representative of Cambodian decent, Rithy Uong, who held the same seat that Pech is vying for from 1999 until he stepped down in 2005.
Uong, aged 50, who spoke to The Post during a recent trip to Phnom Penh, fled Cambodia with his family in 1979 after the Vietnamese invasion that toppled the Khmer Rouge regime.
“I love Cambodia, but my father felt the country was going to be at war again when the Vietnamese invaded. He lost two sons during the Pol Pot regime and he didn’t want to lose any others,” he said.
Unlike Uong, Pech was spared the experience of living under the Khmer Rouge but he maintains a deep sense of all that his parents endured.
“I feel privileged not to go through all the suffering and pain that they went through. I can never truly understand how my parents felt. They were just simple people, farmers, and the war just devastated them and the whole country.”
Both men believe that Uong’s election to city council in 1999 represented a turning point for minority representation in Lowell politics.
The Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association estimates the number of Cambodian-Americans in the city is around 30,000 or 40,000. That makes it the country’s second-highest concentration of Cambodians, after Long Beach, California.
And because Lowell is roughly one-quarter the size of Long Beach – with a population of 106,000 to Long Beach’s 462,000 – the Cambodian population comprises a much larger proportion compared to its West Coast sister.
Pech says he distinctly remembers meeting Uong after the election, when he visited a community centre.
“I remember seeing him come in and I said ‘congrats’ and shook his hand. We were so excited that he won,” he said.
Before the 1999 election, Uong says that less than a hundred Cambodian-Americans cast ballots in the previous municipal elections.
Much of his campaign focused on mobilising this underrepresented community and was ultimately successful in registering more than two-thousand Cambodian-Americans, he said.
“Lowell’s always been a home for refugees and immigrants. In the early eighties, jobs were plentiful, earnings were decent, housing was cheap, opportunity was big.”
According to Uong, Lowell has been a hub for Cambodians and other Southeast Asian immigrants, who he believes were underrepresented in politics.
“I was so upset that no people of colour were serving as elected officials, so I called all the leaders to find a candidate that could fit. And everyone just said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’”
“Election night was one of the brightest moments for the city because it never had such a strong show of support from minorities,” he said.
Van Pech is similarly interested in representing minority interests, which he also feels have been underrepresented in government.
“Most people in Lowell are from minority backgrounds, but local government – the city council, the school boards – doesn’t reflect this,” he said.
This dearth of minority candidates is due in part, Pech says, to a perception that exists among some members of ethnic minority communities that running for public office is only for people from certain backgrounds, different from their own.
“I think there’s a perception that you have to be a lawyer or a business owner or the president of some bank or something to run or serve in public office and it’s not true. You can just be a regular person that cares for the city and that wants to be a part of positive change,” he said.
Role models like Uong were an important part of fostering this mindset among the next generation of Cambodian-Americans in Lowell.
Pech says that Uong was one of the first people he called when he was deciding to run for city council.
“People look to him [Uong] as the unofficial leader of the Asian community of Lowell, so I went to him before I decided to run for general guidance and advice. He told me he was excited for me and he was happy to see the next generation of Cambodian-Americans getting involved,” he said.
Uong is supporting both Pech and Vesna Nuon, another Cambodian-American running for city council. He hopes that both of them win, but at the end of the day, he would be happy even if just one was successful. “I want to make sure that at least one of them gets elected,” he said.
Despite his largely behind-the-scenes role in this year’s municipal election, Uong isn’t done with politics. His sights are set on next year’s general election, when he plans to run for the Massachusetts House of Representatives. If successful, he’ll make history yet again.