When a new slate of elected officials takes office on Jan. 3, it will bring a changing of the guard to Lowell, a sweeping political shift that was years in the making.
For the first time, Lowell will have three Cambodian-American city councilors, a breakthrough for the country’s second-largest Khmer community. If, as expected, one is chosen by his peers as the next mayor, he would become the first Cambodian-American to lead a US city, observers say. The new City Council will also include its first biracial member in Corey Robinson, and Stacey Thompson will become the first Black woman to take office in Lowell as a member of the School Committee.
Just four years ago, every elected city official was white.
“It’s a historical moment. It’s a new chapter of the city of Lowell’s history,” said Paul Ratha Yem, whose election in November made him the third Cambodian-American member of the City Council. To mark the occasion, he has ordered commemorative plaques for all his fellow councilors and sought the city’s approval for a Buddhist monk to offer an inaugural blessing after the traditional invocation by a priest.
The influx of diversity stems from a groundbreaking 2017 voting rights lawsuit filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights and Boston law firm Ropes & Gray on behalf of a group of Asian-American and Latino voters. The federal lawsuit argued that by electing its representatives on a city-wide basis, Lowell was diluting the voting power of nonwhite populations, particularly Latinos and Asian-Americans.
Despite Lowell’s reputation as a city of rich diversity, its leadership had remained overwhelmingly white. But when newly elected members take office, people of color will comprise 35 percent of the City Council and School Committee, a level approaching proportional representation — with one glaring gap: No Latinos have emerged as candidates in a city that is now 18 percent Hispanic.
“In just four years, we have come to a place where over one-third of the elected officials on those two bodies are people of color,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights. “That’s a dramatic change in the power structure of the city. It would be expected to only grow from here.”
Proponents say the revamped electoral system not only expanded racial diversity but also opened the door for a broader range of candidates across lines of gender, class, and political experience.
“It opened up the reality to me of really running,” said Robinson, a former public works employee and union leader who said that before this election, voters from a few high-turnout neighborhoods dominated the vote. More than half of the members of the last City Council lived in a single neighborhood.
“Now it’s wide open for average working-class citizens to get out there and get involved,” Robinson added. Proponents of district-based systems say they also ensure that no neighborhood goes without representation.
“I think people are excited about the change,” said incoming district councilor Kim Scott, whose election doubled the number of women on the overwhelmingly male panel. “I think you’re going to see a lot of changes to the neighborhoods.”
After the voting rights lawsuit was filed, the City Council resisted the plaintiffs’ demands for two years before agreeing in a consent decree to reconfigure local elections. The new model, adopted for the November election, expanded the City Council from nine members to 11, with only three councilors elected citywide and the other eight elected by district.
A seven-member School Committee, which includes the mayor, was also altered so that only two members are elected at-large.
The changes gave untested politicians an opportunity to build support in their immediate area, even if they lack citywide name recognition or thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
Yem, a longtime community leader, noted that he had unsuccessfully run for City Council twice before and credited the new district system for his victory.
“It wouldn’t happen without this lawsuit, I’m telling you,” said Yem. “Because it’s all at-large. We all, including myself, wouldn’t have a chance.”
This time, Yem ran to represent “the Acre,” a historical neighborhood of immigrants that was one of two so-called majority-minority districts formed by the consent decree. He won the district with 454 votes; the councilors who ran city-wide racked up 5,000 to 6,000 votes.
“Without the lawsuit, it’s fair to say that that shift would not have happened, or at least anytime soon,” said Scott Taylor, senior attorney for Ropes & Gray, which provided legal services on the case pro bono. He noted that the racial diversity of the new representatives extended beyond the Asian and Latino populations, whose substantial numbers in Lowell were the backbone of the case. Thompson was among those inspired to run after getting involved in the community process to create new voting districts, Sellstrom noted.
“That was always the goal of the lawsuit,” Taylor said. “While the legal particulars of the suit focus on a coalition of Asian American and Latino voters, the intent was to benefit all minority communities.”
Despite the diverse slate of candidates, turnout was low, with less than 18 percent of registered voters casting ballots in the general election. That was even lower than the last municipal election.
In the years since the lawsuit was filed, two Cambodian-Americans were elected to the City Council. Now, those two are vying to be mayor in a sharply contested race.
Sokhary Chau, who was reelected to a district council seat, is said to have secured enough votes from fellow councilors to be mayor. However, he faces a challenge from at-large Councilor Vesna Nuon, who topped the ticket in November with 6,179 votes.
Nuon, who will be serving his fourth term, contends that he has the seniority and the popular mandate to lead the city, and praised the involvement of the voters who challenged the old system.
“All this change would not be happening without the courageousness of the plaintiffs,” he said. Chau could not be reached for comment.
Lowell was one of the last cities in Massachusetts to have an entirely at-large voting system and its court-ordered overhaul has prompted changes in other cities, including Worcester and Everett. A transition is now being proposed in Haverhill, Sellstrom said.
“Communities of color in Lowell not only changed the power structure in their own city, they also really paved the way for change in many other gateway cities,” he said.
Despite their growing numbers in American cities, Cambodians — who began fleeing the Khmer Rouge as refugees in the 1970s — have not rushed to participate in American politics, remembering the genocidal regime their families fled. Long Beach, Calif., the American city with the nation’s largest concentration of Khmer people, elected its first Cambodian-American councilor in 2020.
“We have a lot of PTSD because if you were engaged in politics, there were ramifications,” said Phitsamay Uy, co-director of the Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “If people were too vocal, then they would disappear.”
If a Cambodian-American is named mayor, it would mark the latest Khmer achievement in Lowell. In 1999, Rithy Uong became the first elected city councilor in the country; in 2014, Rady Mom was the first elected state legislator and State Representative Vanna Howard became the Legislature’s first female Cambodian-American member in 2020.
“A lot of the firsts in the country happen in Lowell,” Uy said.