International issues play key role in Lowell rep’s race

International issues play key role in Lowell rep’s race

Rady Mom, the country’s first and only Cambodian-American legislator, faces an insurrection from within his own community

RADY MOM IS NOT your typical pol, as anyone who has met the two-term state representative on Beacon Hill can probably attest. He exudes warmth and compassion and often displays a broad smile that seems to express some deeper understanding of the universe. It probably has something to do with the fact that Mom meditates on a daily basis, that his self-described occupation is “healer,” that he was once a Buddhist monk. Mom is unique in another respect: He is the first Cambodian-American legislator in the country, representing the 18th Middlesex District, which is home to the largest Cambodian community in the eastern United States.

One might expect Mom to be especially equanimous ahead of the September 4 primary election; Democratic incumbents rarely face serious challenges in Massachusetts, especially in Democratic strongholds like the 18th Middlesex. But this isn’t the case for Mom. Two prominent Cambodian-American candidates are running against him, as is a well-known former city councilor and school committee member. And the campaign has taken a nasty turn. One Cambodian-American rival alleged Mom roughed him up at an event. And an operative with Mom’s campaign did a lot of digging to try to prove (unsuccessfully) that the other Cambodian-American candidates didn’t reside in the district.

One indication of just how vulnerable Mom might be is the attention that he’s enjoyed of late from House Speaker Robert DeLeo, with whom Mom forged an early and, by several accounts, genuine bond. A week before the election, DeLeo came to Lowell to stump with Mom and sing his praises. DeLeo’s Committee for a Democratic House has also contributed to Mom’s campaign. Indeed, the fact that Mom appears to have the ear of the speaker — and other power-brokers — is one of the candidate’s main assets in the view of his supporters.

From his detractors’ perspective, Mom, after two terms, hasn’t really learned the ropes of being a lawmaker, and he isn’t responsive to his constituents. To be sure, some of this is the standard rap challengers try to pin on incumbents. But the harshest critique has come from within Lowell’s Cambodian community. And their concerns have less to do with Mom’s actions on Beacon Hill — or lack thereof — than an increasingly repressive regime on the other side of the world.

A COMMUNITY DIVIDED

Sovann Khon is a photographer with a shop in the main business district in the Lower Highlands, where the faded storefronts bear signs in Khmer and English. This is the heart of the Cambodian community in Lowell, which has been estimated to number around 30,000 people. Along with many of his compatriots, Khon fled the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge, which had claimed the lives of many family members, and settled in Lowell as a refugee in the 1980s.

Khon is a creative type; he didn’t closely follow politics, stateside or back in Cambodia. However, as he heard about incidents of violence against protestors in Cambodia, Khon began to do more research on Cambodia’s history and politics. The country has been led since 1985 by the world’s longest-serving prime minister, Hun Sen, who’s clung to power through a series of spurious elections. All the while, Sen and his family have consolidated control over the media and amassed an ever-larger fortune — approaching $1 billion according to the anti-corruption group Global Witness. In recent years, the regime has tightened the screws on dissidents and parties opposed to Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

It only seemed natural that Khon would share his findings with the guy he considered his “best friend” — and who also happened to be his next door tenant: Rady Mom.

But Mom never seemed to share his concern. Far from it. Just a couple of weeks after Mom was first elected state representative, he showed up in Cambodia sitting side by side with Sen himself at his ornate presidential palace. In a state TV report, Mom was said to be “seeking to know more about Cambodia and to receive Lord and Supreme Military Leader Hun Sen’s recommendations regarding the leadership and development of Cambodia.”

Khon had been an enthusiastic supporter of Mom in his previous elections; he held signs and even let him use his space as a campaign office. But this election, Khon has decided, reluctantly, that he can no longer support his friend, who still has his office next door.

“No matter what I wouldn’t want to hurt him, but the most important thing is I want to save my country from dictatorship,” Khon said. “He’s a nice guy no matter what, but I don’t know why he let the government manipulate him and why he didn’t do his own research and support the United States and the people who are against the communists.”

Khon is not the only person in the Cambodian community who has grown disaffected with Mom. Both of the Cambodian-American candidates running against him had previously backed him. Perhaps the most prominent current Cambodian elected official in the city, Vesna Nuon, who is serving his second term on the city council, is backing one of Mom’s rivals, Rithy Uong.

Factions have long fissured Lowell’s Cambodian community, but in recent years the political situation in Cambodia has erupted into a major fault line. Both the Cambodian People’s Party and the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, have become increasingly active in the city. These tensions came to a head in April 2016, when Hun Sen’s son and heir apparent, Hun Manet, came to Lowell as part of a US charm offensive. He ran into a buzzsaw of local opposition, with protesters taking to the streets and packing Lowell City Hall, which led the council to reject meeting with Manet, along with the gift of a statue of a revered Cambodian king.  Some suggested that Mom himself was a supporter of the Cambodian People’s Party, noting that his uncle, who was among the handful of people who spoke in support of accepting the statue, had a leadership role in the party.

In March 2017, Mom returned to Cambodia, accompanied by Lowell’s deputy planning director. In addition to visiting the US embassy in Phnom Penh, Mom also took time to meet with the country’s foreign minister. In an interview on state TV, he hailed the “good roads, peace, and development” of the country.

Sophal Ear, a professor at Occidental College and an expert on Cambodian politics, said the Cambodian People’s Party has been making a concerted effort to both spread its influence in diaspora communities such as Lowell and to bring US political leaders to the country.

“They want to show that they have elected representatives — who are Cambodian Americans and also who are not Cambodian Americans — to trot out there and say, ‘We’ve convinced these people that we’re legitimate because they’ve come out to honor us.’”

Beginning in the fall of 2017, Sen seemed to drop any pretense of tolerating a competitive political system. Kem Sokha, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was thrown in jail, and the country’s supreme court dissolved the party. Elections were held on July 29 in which Sen was overwhelmingly reelected and his party won all the open seats in the parliament. Ahead of the vote, the US House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act, which for the first time would sanction Sen and members of his inner circle.

In mid-August, Nuon, the Lowell city councilor, brought a resolution before the council to express support for the act. Following the impassioned pleas of numerous members of the Cambodian community who lined up to speak and pack the gallery, the council passed the resolution unanimously. Both of the Cambodian-American candidates for state representative were among the speakers. Mom was nowhere to be found.

BEING A HEALER

Ethereal music plays softly at Rady Mom’s office, a cluttered space that contains, among many other things, a massage table, a guitar, and a big Chinese tiger painting. Accessed through a musty-smelling stairwell with worn carpet, it’s the same office Mom has had since long before his election. Mom, who specializes in acupressure therapy, still sees clients on a part-time basis.

This is where Mom invited me to meet him a few weeks before the election — not a bustling campaign headquarters. It was fitting, perhaps, given his take on legislative work. “People ask me, ‘Rady, what’s the difference between being a healer and being a state representative,’” he says. “Being a healer, I’m able to help people one at a time; being a state representative, I get to help a lot of people with the stroke of a pen.”

Mom came to the country as a refugee without knowing a word of English, he says, and his community involvement started early. After graduating from the Greater Lowell Technical High School in 1990, he used his carpentry skills to help build the Glory Buddhist Temple, one of the first in the area. Mom became a monk at the time; he proudly shows a faded photo of himself in a saffron robe with a shaved head.

Rady Mom met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in November 2014 in Cambodia, shortly after being elected as state rep. (Photo courtesy Honorary Cambodian Consulate of Massachusetts)

It’s this connection to his ancestral culture that made visiting Cambodia shortly after his election in 2014 a priority for him. “My late father had sacrificed everything, including being chased out by his own country,” he says. “I made a promise to myself that if I was able … to honor my late father, I said how wonderful it is for me to go back. And when I went back, to my surprise the country — not just one person — welcomed me with open arms, as a hero to the whole country.”

But Mom steadfastly and repeatedly avoids criticizing the regime of Hun Sen. Asked if he shares the concerns expressed about the regime’s alleged human rights violations, Mom says: “I’m not an international lawyer. I don’t in any shape or form work in international policy making. I live right here in Lowell, and I work for my constituents, my family, my kids every day. Heck, I don’t have time to think about what takes place half way around the world. I’m sorry, but that’s beyond my scope.”

He adds, “It’s sad because my constituents, who I represent, they couldn’t care for any of that. And this is why it is none of my prerogative.”

(Mom says he paid for the trips to Cambodia entirely out his own pocket. Elected officials are barred from accepting gifts worth more than $50, and travel expenses covered by a third party must be disclosed to the State Ethics Commission.)

Asked about his uncle’s role in the Cambodian People’s Party, Mom points out that Uong, the rival candidate, has a leadership role in the Cambodia National Rescue Party; he’s the president of its American chapter. But, he suggests, the fixation on political labels is part of a much deeper problem. “Even in America, the basis of democracy itself, that’s supposed to be flexible, we only care about whether you have an ‘R’ or ‘D’ in front of your name,” he says. “Their minds are made up already. I’m sorry, we’re in the business of human wellbeing. That’s my job. I’m not there to cause or create any more harm than there is.”

THE CHALLENGERS

It’s safe to say most residents of 18th Middlesex District aren’t interested in the finer points of Cambodian politics. The district spans the “Acre” (a gritty section of the city near downtown), the Lower Highlands, and the Upper Highlands, a comparatively more affluent area. While Cambodians make up a large share of the population of the district, they’re one of many immigrant groups, hailing from Asia, Latin America, and Africa, along with plenty of native-born residents.

Beyond the Cambodian community, the main charge leveled against Mom is that he hasn’t been responsive to residents. “He’s not actively engaging with 18th Middlesex constituents,” candidate Rithy Uong said. “He doesn’t return phone calls. They’ve never had any public forum to discuss issues with the constituents.” (It took Mom more than a week to return calls from CommonWealth and agree to an interview.)

Rithy Uong, a former Lowell city councilor, could be viewed as the elder statesman of the Lowell Cambodian community. (Photo courtesy Rithy Uong)

Uong could be viewed as the elder statesman of the Lowell Cambodian community. He was the first Cambodian-American in the city elected to public office, serving on the city council from 1999-2005. Uong, a school guidance counselor, had been on a long hiatus from politics since he stepped down from the council in 2005 after the State Ethics Commission found that he had improperly accepted a job as a Lowell High School headmaster while serving on the council.

The other Cambodian-American challenging Mom is Sam Meas, a charismatic guy who first signaled his heady political ambitions back in 2010 by running as a Republican for the congressional seat held by Niki Tsongas. While Meas had been living in Haverhill until a few years ago, he’s long been involved with Lowell’s Cambodian community, and his friendship with Mom goes back years. Their kids played with each other, and Meas had briefly served as Mom’s campaign manager.

But things changed after Meas (having converted to a Democrat) challenged Mom for the state representative seat. On May 5, the two encountered each other at a banquet hall where a mutual friend was having a graduation party. Meas said he tapped Mom on the shoulder to say hi, but that Mom grabbed him, pulled tightly on his collar, and forcefully put his fist into Meas’s ribcage, while launching a fusillade of “f-bombs” at him. “Rady is a very strong man. He knows karate, jujitsu,” Meas said.

A few days later, Meas sought a protection order against Mom, which a judge summarily denied over a lack of supporting witnesses or evidence. (Mom told the judge he gave Meas a normal handshake and was “shocked” by the allegation.)

For some, the incident cemented Meas’s reputation as a political “opportunist,” as one Cambodian source referred to him. But accompanying Meas on the stump, it’s clear that he possesses genuine chops. He’s well versed in the issues facing the district, and he engages easily with residents.

Both Uong and Meas are mounting vigorous campaigns; their yard signs far outnumbered Mom’s as of two weeks before the election. All of this raises the possibility that the two candidates could end up splitting the Cambodian vote — to the benefit of Jim Leary, a longtime school committee member and one-term city councilor. Leary is a long-term resident of the Upper Highlands who lost to Mom by just 53 votes in the 2014 primary.

Sam Meas snaps a selfie with supporters. (Photo courtesy Sam Meas)

Leary, who is blunt and fast-talking, said that he personally likes Mom and supported him for reelection in 2016, but that he heard too many complaints about Mom not responding to constituents. “That’s what your job is, that’s what you get paid for,” Leary said. “Not Cambodia, not Ireland, not Lithuania.”

There are other knocks against Mom. He’s sponsored only a handful of bills since he took office, and his attendance record for roll-call votes (79 percent for the 2017 session) places him in the lower tier of legislators.

When the four candidates met in a debate at UMass Lowell on August 16, some of Mom’s responses tended to be gauzy and off-topic. Asked to offer a bill he would file if reelected, Mom didn’t give a specific example, and Meas pressed Mom to answer the question.

“The most important is the Rourke Bridge, which I personally and on behalf of the whole delegation fought for,” Mom said, referring to a temporary bridge over the Merrimack River long past its prime.

Leary responded that city leaders had fought for the project long before Mom took up the cause. “That’s almost laugh-out-loud funny,” Leary said.

Pressed again by the moderator for a specific bill, Mom said: “It’s not the bill. It’s about all of you; your concern is the high school, the public safety. That is the concern. When I go back there, it is to finish my job.”

HANDS-ON JOB

Mom’s supporters stress that his strong suits are compassion and personal relationships, not legislative arcana. He doesn’t have a law degree from Boston College or other bonafides claimed by Massachusetts politicians.

“He’s got a job that, no pun intended, is hands on,” said Matt Donahue — who knows from experience. The two first met decades ago when Mom treated Donahue for a bad back. Even then, Donahue said, he recognized Mom’s potential.

“He’s a leader in politics. Those don’t coexist generally. Politicians generally skate along and do what they’re told,” said Donahue, who himself has an impressive political pedigree. A fourth-generation lawyer in Lowell, he served as a city councilor in the 1990s, and his uncle, Richard K. Donahue, was an advisor to John F. and Ted Kennedy.

Donahue and his wife were early supporters of Mom’s political ambitions. His wife headed his first two campaigns for state representative, and Donahue has helped the campaign in various ways, including by representing the man who challenged the residency of Meas and Uong before the State Ballot Law Commission.

Mom has found other allies among Lowell’s power-brokers — an asset that’s notable in a city with long-running tensions over a lack of minority participation in city government. (The city is currently facing a federal lawsuit over the issue.) In his first bid for the state representative seat, Mom, who had only run for office once before (a failed bid for city council in 2005), received the surprise endorsement of the politically potent Lowell Sun. The newspaper has continued to endorse Mom, including in this year’s primary.

“You can see that Rady has really had the good support of the political establishment,” said Paul Ratha Yem, a longtime community leader. Yem was a write-in candidate in the 2014 state representative race, but threw his support to Mom after the primary and backed him in 2016.

Yem is now among those in the Cambodian community who have soured on Mom. He said he’d be happy with any of the other candidates — even it means losing the seat to a non-Cambodian.

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“A lot of people in Lowell are affected by the current regime in Cambodia. It makes people very angry, that kind of blunder shows a lack of leadership,” Yem said, referring to Mom’s seeming acquiescence toward the regime in Cambodia. “I would like to see our state representative being very articulate and making points on issues — and be more forward-thinking on issues facing the district.”

Just how many voters share these concerns could very well determine Mom’s fate on primary day.