Milestone in American History: Two Cambodian Americans Elected To Lowell City Council

By Soben Pin

Elected Councilor Vesna Nuon
Vice Mayor Vesna Nuon

On Tuesday, November 5, 2019, Lowell residents elected Vesna Nuon and Sokhary Chau to the city council, making it the first time in Lowell and anywhere else in the United States that two Cambodian Americans will serve together on a local city council. Nuon, who was Vice Chair of the council for the current two year term, finished second and Chau, who had run unsuccessfully two years ago, finished a strong fifth.

Lowell residents also voted on two referendum questions that will help decide the future method of electing city councilors and school committee members. These questions were the result of a lawsuit brought against the city in 2017 (Huot et al. v. City of Lowell et al) claimed the current way councilors are chosen all nine are elected citywide violates the Federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the votes of minority residents. 

Elected Councilor Sokhary Chau

For example, in the last 50 years, Lowell operated on an election system which top ticket city-wide votes getter would win a seat. Lowell has 105,000 people with nearly 49.2 percent is made up by minority population that includes a large population of 30,000 Cambodians. The city is divided into 8 neighborhoods. They’re including Downtown, Acre, Pawtucketville, Centralville, Belvedere, Highlands, Lower Highlands, and South Lowell. At the time of the lawsuit, 7 out of 9 council members were residing in the Belvedere neighborhood and it has been consistently this way in the last couple decades. 

Belvedere is a neighborhood section in Lowell that links to rich history of Lowell Mills era in the 1800s when many families had big homes, made great fortunes during the textile industry, and had powerful political influence. Up until today, it has the highest voter turnout of any neighborhood and maintains it political power structure for city. Many people believe that the city is running well this way except for one thing: the barrier to new candidates, people of color, whom lack of famous family names and money to run and succeed to serve in local government in the city. 

Earlier this year, the city council agreed to settle this law suit by changing the election system to one that was acceptable to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. To help councilors make their decision, they asked voters to express their preference in these election ballot questions.

The first question asked if people wanted councilors to be selected by Ranked Choice Voting which is the system used in Cambridge. Under this system, voters would rank the candidates with their favorite candidate being number 1; their second favorite candidate number 2; and so on until they had ranked all candidates. 

The second question asked if people wanted a system where three councilors would be elected citywide (or “at large”) and eight councilors would be elected from neighborhood districts with the majority of the voters in at least two of the districts being members of minority groups. 

People voted in favor of the at-large/district mix and against Ranked Choice Voting. On December 3, 2019, the current city council will select one of the two systems. Although councilors are not legally bound by the outcome of the referendum results, they most likely will vote for the at-large/district mix. That will then be used in the 2021 city election. 

As soon as the election results were known, people began to ask who will be the next mayor of Lowell? On the first Monday of January when the new councilors take their oath of office, their first business will be to elect the mayor. Each of the nine councilors states the name of the councilor they want to serve as mayor, and the first person to get five votes is elected mayor.

The question everyone is asking now is will Vesna Nuon be next Lowell Mayor? Why and why not? The political system in Lowell for the 2020-21 term will have many changes. One is the implementation of the new election system which was voted on Tuesday. Another big issue will be the progress of the renovations to Lowell High School. A third issue will be the continued development of the Hamilton Canal District. 

Many people in the political “bubble” have been talking about who will the next Lowell Mayor. Some are against Vesna Nuon because he supports charter schools and therefore shouldn’t be the mayor since the mayor also chairs the School Committee. Some political people say Councilor John Leahy should be the next mayor because he is the longest serving councilor who has not yet been mayor and he should “have a turn.” However, I like to remind our voters that councilor John Leahy believes the current voting system is working. The question is will he be supporting the election system change if elected as Mayor?

The third possible answer is a first time candidate, John Drinkwater, who finished third in the race. John has a fresh look on many issues we are facing and is a progressive thinker who also supports the district and at-large system.

Finally, it is worth noting that the last three vote candidates elected to the council, David Conway, William Samaras, and Dan Rourke, were separated by only eight votes. So every really counts. Your voice makes a different, every time. Be sure to participate in every election. 2020 election Massachusetts will hold state election and it will be also the presidential election year.

Here are the vote totals for the winning council candidates for the 2020-2011 term: 

  • Rita Mercier, 5,191
  • Vesna Nuon, 4,821
  • John Drink Water, 4,788
  • Rodney Elliott, 4,738 
  • Sokhary Chau, 4,321
  • John Leahy, 4,182
  • David Conway, 3,738
  • William Samaras 3,734
  • Dan Rourke, 3,726