He came to the United States as a young refugee, having survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Today, Sokhary Chau is the country’s first Cambodian American mayor.
The 49-year-old Lowell, Mass., City councilor was unanimously chosen by his colleagues to assume the body’s top post on Monday, becoming the first Asian-American mayor of the city. city.
“God bless America, right? I was a refugee, now I’m the mayor of a big city in Massachusetts,” Chau said hours after officially taking the oath. “I don’t know if it could happen anywhere else in the world. I’m still trying to absorb it.
Chau, in his opening remarks, referred to his family’s perilous flight from Cambodia and deep immigrant roots in Lowell, about 50 miles north of Boston, near the New Hampshire line. It was one of the earliest centers of the American textile industry, attracting waves of European and Latin American immigrants over generations.
Today, the city of over 115,000 inhabitants is almost 25% 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 including his wife and two teenage sons.
Chau recounted how his father, a captain of the Cambodian army, was executed by the Khmer Rouge communists in 1975 during the civil war.
Her mother, who died late last year, managed to keep her seven children alive for four years, surviving “landmines, jungles, hunger, disease and uncertainty” for them. deliver safely to the United States, he said.
In a later interview, Chau said he was around 9 years old when his family arrived in Pittsburgh with help from the Catholic Church. They lived for a time in a convent and embraced Christianity.
They traveled to the growing Cambodian community of Lowell in the mid-1980s, where some of his older siblings immediately went to work in local manufacturing operations.
Chau, however, continued his education and got a scholarship to Phillips Academy, an elite boarding school located near Andover. He continued his education at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he studied economics and political science, also on a scholarship.
Prior to running for office, Chau said, he worked primarily in financial services, including running a mortgage company in Lowell with his wife. He now works for the social security administration.
Chau’s election follows the rise of Boston’s new 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 person of color to be elected to the post.
Chau is also part of a growing list of Cambodian American officials in Massachusetts, which includes two other city councilors, a member of the school committee and two state lawmakers, all from Lowell, said Vannak Theng, chairman of the Cambodian Association of Mutual Assistance of the Great Lowell.
But while Americans of Cambodian descent have served on local councils and state legislatures nationwide, none have been elected mayor, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, a nonprofit. which helps the Americans of Asia Pacific to exercise public office.
In fact, Long Beach, California, home to the country’s largest Cambodian community, did not elect its first Cambodian U.S. city councilor until 2020, the organization noted.
Chau’s election also follows a federal lawsuit that argued that Lowell’s electoral process violated the voting rights of minority residents, who make up nearly 50 percent of his population.
A recent settlement of the case has led the city to change its electoral system, starting with the 2021 elections. The result has been the city’s most diverse class of office holders, said Oren Sellstrom, director of litigation 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 communities of color,” he said.
Chau’s role as mayor is largely ceremonial. Lowell’s day-to-day operations are managed by a city manager chosen by the board, and Chau effectively serves as the chairman of the board, leads its meetings, and also chairs the school committee.
But he believes he can make a difference by ensuring the city’s workforce, including its police department and school system, better represents its diverse population.
He also recognizes that his election is important for the Cambodian diaspora. The community’s political dynamics played a role in the run-up to Monday’s vote – its main rival was another Cambodian American adviser.
Chau says he tries to stay out of “old world politics” and intends to focus on the inner workings of governance. But hope he can inspire the next generation of Cambodian Americans to step up.
“We can no longer be mere victims,” said Chau, closing his inaugural address. “Now is the time for us to be leaders and to be successful. “