When Hong L. Net and Vesna Nuon took their oaths as city councilors this week, it marked the official start of their tenures as municipal officials but also a defining moment for the region’s Cambodian-American community.
Net, who won a Lynn City Council seat last November, and Nuon, who earned a seat on the Lowell City Council, are believed to be the second and third Cambodian-Americans in the country to be elected to city councils.
Rithy Uong, whose election to the Lowell City Council in 1999 made him the first, said he is not aware of any other Cambodian-Americans nationally who have won council seats.
Although still elated at their electoral wins, Net and Nuon - both Cambodian natives - are looking ahead to their new role as leaders of their adopted cities.
“I want to unite the city,’’ said Net, who was elected to an at-large seat as a first-time candidate. “There are some communities that still feel disconnected and isolated,’’ referring in particular to new immigrant and refugee populations. “I want them to feel comfortable, to feel part of the city. I want them to work with us to build the city.’’
He said a united city could work to improve public safety and education, which in turn would help draw businesses to Lynn.
Nuon, who finished seventh in a 17-way race for nine seats in Lowell, said his priorities as councilor will include bringing people together to “proactively address crime and violence in our city.’’
Other goals include attracting more Asian-American businesses to the downtown - most are now clustered in Asian neighborhoods - and to spur the city to hire local young people, particularly from immigrant families.
Uong, who was elected three times to the council and is president of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, said the only other Cambodian-American he knows of winning political office in the country is Daniel Lam, who served three terms as a Randolph selectman starting in 1997.
The elections of Nuon and Net, Uong said, are an important step forward in bringing greater diversity to the governments in Lynn and Lowell.
“I think it speaks a lot about the openness of voters, that they are giving us a chance to be part of the government and to serve the country that we love and respect,’’ he said.
The 2010 US Census counted 13,319 Cambodian-Americans in Lowell, 21,513 Asian-Americans altogether, according to the website of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In Lynn, the census counted 3,489 Cambodian-Americans, 6,292 Asian-Americans altogether.
But local Cambodian leaders believe those figures understate the actual size of the Cambodian and Asian-American populations in the two cities, since they do not reflect people who did not respond to the census, according to Nuon and Net.
Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies, said that “traditionally the census reflects an undercount of the Asian-American population,’’ notably the Cambodian population.
The elections of Net and Nuon are stirring excitement within the Cambodian communities in both cities.
“Election night, we had about 100 people who came to the headquarters,’’ said Net, who narrowly finished fourth in an eight-way race for four at-large seats, of his Cambodian-American supporters. “They were so excited; they were so happy.’’
Watanabe said the overall number of Asian-Americans elected to office in Massachusetts remains small, but is growing.
He recalled a forum his institute held about 10 years ago featuring Asian-Americans who had run for office, and “four or five people were represented. Now if we held the same kind of forum, we would have to have several panels of individuals.’’
Other Asian-Americans who have won office include Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong; former Boston city councilor Sam Yoon; and state representatives Donald H. Wong of Saugus and Tackey Chan of Quincy. Donald Wong, also a selectman, is Chinese-American, as are Lisa Wong and Chan. Yoon is Korean-American.
Watanabe said the elections of Nuon and Net were notable for the Cambodian community, but that Net’s win was particularly significant, because Lynn’s Cambodian community is smaller than Lowell’s and has not been as consistently well organized.
Net and Nuon both came to the United States as refugees after surviving the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when 1.7 million people died from starvation, execution, torture, forced labor, and illness from 1975 to 1979.
During those years, both Net and Nuon endured extreme hardship in work camps and lost family members. Afterward both fled to Thailand, where they lived for several years in refugee camps before being resettled by relief agencies in Massachusetts.
Net and his wife, Thavra, have lived in Lynn for 14 years and have two children. For the past 13 years, he has worked as a child enforcement support specialist for the state Department of Revenue.
A first-time candidate this year, he had previously been active in the city as an organizer of annual Cambodian new year’s celebrations, and as an advisory board member for Project Yes, a program that encourages at-risk youth to make positive choices.
Nuon has lived in Lowell since 1992. He and his wife, Navey, have two children.
Since 2000, Nuon has served as a full-time member of the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board.
Prior to that, he worked for the Middlesex district attorney’s office as a victim witness advocate and a cultural consultant who assisted with efforts to combat gang violence in Lowell, particularly in the Asian community.
Nuon has also been an active community volunteer, including cofounding the Cambodian American League of Lowell, and for the past 11 years he has served on the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals.