First Cambodian-American state lawmaker offers a fresh antidote to cynicism
Let's get it out of the way early: This guy is a campaign manager's dream, if — for nothing else — the double-take wattage of his political yard signs.
Vote for Your Mom.
Mom Needs You.
Mr. Mom Works for You.
It's been about a year since Rady Mom, a 46-year-old naturalized American citizen, was elected to the state House of Representatives from Lowell. And the guy is nothing less than a refreshing and impressive antidote to a political system so poisonous, so cynical, so broken.
"Here's an immigrant who didn't speak a word of English and now to see our democracy in action and to be a part of it myself, well, I pinch myself in the morning just to make sure I'm awake,'' Mom, a Democrat, told me this week as we stood in his district office overlooking Lowell's Cupples Square.
He'd never stepped foot inside the Massachusetts State House before he arrived there in January for his swearing-in ceremony. "I was lost,'' he said. "It was like an alien had just landed. I was scared because I didn't know anything and they told me I had to sink or swim.''
Considering the arc of his life, his harrowing escape from the Killing Fields of Cambodia, mastering the arcane rituals of Massachusetts politics should be a walk in the park.
He was born in Pailin, Cambodia, and remembers his boyhood as "a living dream.'' In 1975, a nightmare descended. He and his family were lucky not to be among the nearly 2 million who perished under the fanatical Khmer Rouge regime. Between 1975 and 1979, cities were emptied, religion was banned, and money was abolished in service of leader Pol Pot's warped efforts to create an agrarian utopia.
His father, a ruby miner, was a village leader. "In one day, we went from sleeping in my beautiful bed to sleeping on the ground,'' Mom recalled. "My whole family was on a list to be executed.''
They nearly were. Ultimately, they found themselves in a refugee camp near Cambodia's border with Thailand. Bullets flew. Bombs exploded. A nearby family was wiped out. "We were in the middle of it,'' he said. "My father told me, 'Son, hold on to my shirt and never let go.' ''
Mom held on. And his journey led him first to Duluth, Minn., and in 1984 to Lowell, home to American's second-largest Cambodian population, the city that last year made Mom the first Cambodian-American state legislator in the nation.
"It's a big deal,'' Sonny Sok, a friend who knocked on doors for Mom during last year's campaign, told me over lunch at the Phnom Penh Restaurant across the street from Mom's district office. "Even when I go to Cambodia, they know who Rady is.''
Mom, indeed, is a big deal back in his native country. He has met with Hun Sen, the country's prime minister. Mom's backstory as a former Buddhist monk, an acupressure therapist, community leader, and father of four is embedded in local lore.
Mom lost his first bid for elective office in 2005 when he ran for a seat on the Lowell City Council. "I didn't know what it takes,'' he said. "As a monk, you don't toot your own horn.''
There's not much horn-tooting these days either. He's attending his committee meetings. He's leaning on legislative leadership for guidance. He's helping unemployed veterans and elderly women looking for their Supplemental Security Income checks.
"I'll jump right on it,'' he tells them.
Boston voters will be called to the polls on Tuesday to choose among City Council candidates. Some 373,000 voters are registered. Voting specialists expect not many more than 50,000 to show up.
People like Rady Mom, who risked so much, and treasure democracy so greatly, cannot comprehend that.
"This country has given me so much. I'm just filled with gratitude,'' he told me. "In any other country in the world, you cannot become what I've become. If you say I'm the epitome of the American dream, I cannot disagree with you.''
He'll run for reelection next year. Those yard signs will be ready.
You Can Always Count on Your Mom.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.