Metro

Cambodian-American becomes a first in Lowell

Rady Mom is the first Cambodian-American elected to the state Legislature.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
Rady Mom is the first Cambodian-American elected to the state Legislature.

LOWELL — About 30,000 Cambodian immigrants and their children live in this city, and on Election Day hundreds of them filed into a half-dozen polling places to cast ballots for Rady Mom, one of their own.

Mom rode the popularity he commands among of his countrymen to victory as state representative-elect for the 18th Middlesex District, becoming the first Cambodian-American elected to the state Legislature and one of only a handful Cambodian-Americans to ever win public office in the United States.

“I am happy for the entire community — the community deserves it for all their hard work,” the perpetually-smiling Mom said in an interview after garnering almost 4,000 votes to win by about 20 percentage points over a local school committee member.

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As he escorted a reporter around Cupples Square, in the heart of the Cambodian-American community here, Mom was besieged with congratulations — some delivered with handshakes, some with back slaps, some with pious bows, hands pressed together, in a traditional gesture of respect.

RELATED: Rady Mom, in his own words

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“I am so happy and so proud,” said Pitou Phat, who pulled over his pickup truck after spotting Mom on the sidewalk. “A lot of people are talking about a Cambodian winning.”

Mom defeated three other candidates in the Democratic primary in September. After his final election victory on Tuesday, he fielded congratulatory calls from Governor Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, US Senator Elizabeth Warren, and US Representative Niki Tsongas, some of the state’s most powerful politicians.

But over a dinner of roast duck, papaya salad, and sticky rice at the nearby Phnom Penh Restaurant, a regular haunt, Mom, who is 45, seemed comfortable in the company of old friends and fellow immigrants like Sambath Soum, Sovann Khon, and Chantha Khem.

Soum is a public school teacher, Khon a musician, and Khem a painter, all accomplished in their fields. As Mom made introductions, they looked on with pride, still in the glow of Tuesday’s big win. Khon even played a happy piece of music on the tro, the traditional Cambodian instrument that is something like a cross between a violin and a cello.

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“We are Americans, and we have the right to choose the people we want to lead us, and we chose in the right person,” said Soum, nodding in Mom’s direction. “He has come a long way, and this is important for all of us.”

Rady Mom played a flute in his Lowell office.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
Rady Mom played a flute in his Lowell office.

Mom’s story begins in the 1970s in Cambodia where his father and grandfather, trained in centuries-old traditional methods of healing, enjoyed the esteem of fellow villagers. But Khmer Rouge Communist rulers forced his family into brutal labor camps. By the time the regime ended, and Mom’s family was free, about 2 million Cambodians had died in political purges or famine, nearly a quarter of the country’s population.

Sponsored by the Chester Park United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minn., Mom and his family arrived in the chilly Midwest in 1982, then moved on to Lowell two years later, drawn by the burgeoning Cambodian community. By then, thousands of Cambodians had settled in Lowell. Today, only Long Beach, Calif., is home to more Cambodian-Americans.

“I didn’t speak a word of English,” Mom recalled, his accent still very evident. Mom, like his brother and two sisters, attended public schools. He later graduated from Middlesex Community College, and followed in his forebears’ footsteps by becoming a healer, using massage therapy to treat injuries and relieve pain.

In 2005, Mom ran unsuccessfully for Lowell city councilor. This year, the local state representative’s seat became vacant when Kevin Murphy resigned to become Lowell city manager. Mom and his supporters felt their time had come: A largely Irish-American district over the years had become a majority minority district, including Laotians, Vietnamese, Burmese, Kenyans, and other newcomers to America.

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The Mom team targeted Cambodian-Americans in an aggressive voter registration drive. They mapped out 2,000 doors for Mom to knock on. They raised almost $40,000 for mailings, leaflets, and lawn signs. Mom made his rounds at the usual candidate forums but was careful not to overlook the city’s seven Buddhist temples.

‘I am happy for the entire community — the community deserves it for all their hard work.’

Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American elected to the state Legislature 

Mom said he has never been inside the State House.

“I’ve driven by it and looked at the golden dome,” he said with a laugh. “It is an amazing building. To be part of it, that’s amazing.”

Asked whether he felt overwhelmed by the idea of mixing it up in the capital city with wily politicians from all over the state, Mom said he is looking forward to it.

“You don’t become who I am by being afraid or timid,” he said. “I worked for everything I have.”

Crossing the street after dinner, Mom had to step back quickly to avoid being hit by a speeding car. It was dark and the paint marking the crosswalk was faded and an overhead light was out.

“I’m definitely going to get this fixed,” he said of the dangerous intersection. “A state rep can make that happen. Something needs to be done.”

More content:

Rady Mom, in his own words

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.