Lowell, a Massachusetts mill town whose minorities nearly makeup a majority of its residents, has a history of all-white governing bodies. But in a citywide election this week, driven by a debate over the high school’s fate, voters elected two Cambodian-Americans, putting one on the City Council and the other on the School Committee.
The two victories in the city, which has the second-largest Cambodian-American community in the U.S. after Long Beach, California, came as voters nationwide elected a diverse group of candidates that included refugees, immigrants and members of the LGBT community, as well as racial and ethnic minorities.
The electoral wins also came during a time of rising xenophobia and white supremacy in the country.
In Lowell, residents also made history Tuesday by electing the first minority to the School Committee, as the school board is called. Cambodian-American Dominik Hok Lay came in fourth in the vote for six open seats.
Vesna Nuon, a Cambodian-born candidate, garnered the most votes — 6,518 out of 90,756 — cast for the nine open Lowell City Council seats. Nuon previously served on the council for one term, 2011-2012.
‘We are one city’
“I think it is a historical day in the city,” said Rodney Elliott, an incumbent who was re-elected. He credited his victory, in part, to allies in the Cambodian community. “We have a Cambodian city councilor and we have a Cambodian School Committee person. It is good for the city.
“I think it is a strong message that we are one city, and that we are starting to come together and understand and work together,” Elliott said.
About 49.2 percent of Lowell’s population, which totals a little more than 110,000, form the minority bloc, of which Asian-Americans are the largest group. Since 1999, only four minority candidates have been elected to the City Council.
Tuesday’s success is important for the city’s almost majority.
In May, several minority citizens filed a lawsuit alleging the city’s at-large, or “winner-take-all,” voting system dilutes the minority vote and discriminates against candidates from minority communities.
On Oct. 17, at the first public hearing on Huot v. City of Lowell in U.S. District Court, Judge William Young denied the city’s motion to dismiss. This means Lowell may find itself headed to trial against some of its minority residents, unless the council decides to opt for a change from within.
Nuon, 50, came to the U.S. in 1982 as a Cambodian refugee. He said the victory is for Lowell residents, especially the Cambodian community, who he says have trusted in his leadership vision in the city.
“This success is not just for me, but for Cambodian community and Lowell residents as a whole,” Nuon said. “Now it is time to work together for a better Lowell.”
A single-issue election?
Although this was an election when minorities were expected to obtain representation on the two city panels, the future of Lowell High School, whether to build a new school in a new location or renovate the current downtown school, emerged as the largest issue that drew voters to the polls.
The high school issue was pervasive in all races. Of the 18 City Council candidates, 10 supported the estimated $350 million renovation, while eight wanted to spend an estimated $334 million to build a new school nearer to the outlying playing fields.
In June, the City Council voted 5-4 to relocate the high school to Cawley Stadium in Belvidere, a predominantly white and well-to-do enclave. Sixty percent of those who voted in the election Tuesday, which included a measure on the high school, came from Belvidere, according to an analysis in the local newspaper the Lowell Sun.
Sokhary Chau, a Cambodian-born American candidate, lost his bid for the City Council.
A first-time candidate who favored relocating the high school, Chau said he was disappointed with the results, saying the election was dominated by Belvidere voters, although he was proud of the two Cambodian winners, Nuon and Lay.
“This is democracy,” said incumbent Elliott, who supported the campaign to relocate the high school. People were “organized and they voted. It is good to go out and vote. It is good to exercise freedom of speech. It is all good.”
Another incumbent who was re-elected on Tuesday agrees.
Councilor William Samaras, a former mayor, told the local newspaper that the ballot-box battle over the high school’s future “wasn’t a neighborhood issue. It was a citywide issue and the results show it.”
Or as Nuon put it, “The people have spoken.”