The “Cambodian vote” in the 2013 city election

Hanging on a nearby wall is the framed original of my great grandfather’s naturalization papers. Covering the front of the document are fading red stamps that say “Registrars of Voters, Lowell MA” with a succession of changing dates beginning with “Oct 15 1900.” Like most of his fellow immigrants from Ireland, as soon as my great grandfather became a US citizen, he began to vote. For the Irish and for nearly every other immigrant group who came to Lowell after them, politics was an important part of life.

This personal connection with immigrant politics is one of the reasons I am interested in the place of the Cambodian community in Lowell politics. When Vesna Nuon first won election to the Lowell City Council in 2011, he did so with extremely strong support from the precincts with the most Cambodian voters. In November 2012 when Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown in Lowell by 17% and in June 2013 when Ed Markey defeated Gabriel Gomez by 15%, Cambodian voters were a big part of their coalitions.

Vesna Nuon lost his City Council seat in this week’s election, dropping from 7th place in 2011 to 15th place in 2013. Why did that happen? And what about Van Pech, the other Cambodian council candidate who finished in 16th place in both elections?

My first theory was that the number of active Cambodian voters may be a fixed number that with the 2011 turnout of 9,946 was sufficient to win a seat but proved insufficient when the 2013 turnout rose to 11,581. Looking at the ward by ward performance by both Nuon and Pech in both 2011 and 2013 disproved that theory. Both made substantial gains in wards that have the most Cambodian voters (Wards 2, 3, 4, and 7). However, that same comparison shows that both Nuon and Pech, but especially Nuon, lost a substantial number of votes from 2011 to 2013 in the wards that have the fewest Cambodian voters (Wards 1, 6, and 9 – both also lost ground in Ward 8 which has a substantial Cambodian population but has other issues that will be a subject of a future post).

Here is a ward by ward comparison of the change in vote totals for both Vesna Nuon (VN) and Van Pech (VP) showing the actual change in votes plus that change as a percentage:

W1 – VN = -238 (-40%) — VP = +8 (+3%)

W2 – VN = +51 (+23%) — VP = +112 (+81%)

W3 – VN = +40 (+13%) — VP = +54 (+30%)

W4 – VN = +60 (+16%) — VP = +130 (+62%)

W5 – VN = +11 (+7%) — VP = +35 (+37%)

W6 – VN = -114 (-31%) — VP = -22 (-13%)

W7 – VN = +96 (+44%) — VP = +86 (+57%)

W8 – VN = -188 (-30%) — VP = -51 (-18%)

W9 – VN = -88 (-28%) — VP = -25 (-14%)

W10 – VN = +15 (+9%) — VP = +57 (+65%)

W11 – VN = -20 (-7%) — VP = +11 (+7%)

Citywide = VN = -371 (-10%) — VP = +374 (+20%)

There is no doubt that Vesna Nuon became engulfed in controversial issues during this council term, some of his own making (campaign finances and rental property) and others (ratifying Gerry Nutter’s appointment to the election commission and opposing the move to censure Mayor Murphy) that collectively extracted an electoral price. Although Vesna provided the Lowell Sun with the ammunition, the newspaper repeatedly hammered him with negative stories. That coverage could account for the plunge in Vesna’s support in Ward 1 which has by far the oldest median age of voters of any ward in the city (i.e., the people most likely to still read a newspaper).

But what of Van Pech? He ran one of the most positive, issues-oriented campaigns seen in this or any other election, yet he saw a substantial loss of votes from his 2011 performance in certain sections of the city. The increase in overall turnout from 2011 (9,946) to 2013 (11,581) was 16%. For a candidate who ran in both 2011 and 2013 to stay the same, his vote total should have risen by the same percentage. While Van Pech’s citywide total did increase by more than that amount (his went up 20%), his performance greatly exceeded that in the wards with the most Cambodian voters (up 81% in ward 2, up 62% in ward 4). Had his vote in all the other parts of the city increased in the same proportion as the overall turnout increased – by 16% – he still would not have won a seat but he would have been far more competitive than he was.

There are many possible explanations for the slippage in support for Cambodian candidates in the wards with the fewest Cambodians, some benign, some not so benign. It’s an issue worth exploring further. Once the purged voter file becomes available in a few weeks, we can look in great detail at who voted where and perhaps draw some conclusions at that time. In the meantime, the Cambodian people in Lowell should be encouraged by the substantial increase in turnout that was seen in the wards in which most of them live. That may be little consolation when a member of the community is no longer on the city council, but in politics, it’s important to take the long view and that increase in turnout is a positive development.

5 Responses to The “Cambodian vote” in the 2013 city election

  1. Geoffrey Feldman says:

    There are the factors that you mention but another one is that immigrant communities ultimately become a group of individuals in the electorate each person with their own viewpoints and political opinions. This process certainly does happen but here it has happened faster than than what is historic for other immigrant groups.

    In Lowell we really do have an accepting and egalitarian city. This is positive but it also serves to erode that cohesion faster. You have but to watch kids getting out of the high school to notice that associations between school chums is based more on friendship and less on country of origin. This is also evident in social network relationship.

    I do not believe that neither Mr. Nuon nor Mr. Pech took their communities for granted but I’m sure they hoped for stronger support. In my political persuasion work, I’ve noticed that assuming an alliance based on some ones last name is justifiably seen as rude. People wish to be seen as what they are: Voters.

    Generally I think the successes of this campaign represent old alliances mostly name recognition. In my view the failures, especially among candidates with strong policy statements, such as you remark about Mr. Pech, was in not fully understanding campaign methodology. “Grass Roots” was exciting but the underlying training, operational planning and use of databases did not seem as evident to me as I think it should be.

    What we need for the future is a more methodical political culture in Lowell. The candidates can help, bringing their volunteers to the 2014 campaigns. There these people will learn, develop skills and the candidates, now organizers, will gain an understanding of the process as well. By doing this, they can set the stage for a more rewarding 2015 election. Positive enthusiasm is great but a measure of calculation and cunning is also important.

  2. Renee Aste says:

    Could it still be a lagging in adults under 40 voting? I tended to vote my age group, including Van. We do have two under 40, though but both relied on older persons for endorsements.

  3. Greg Page says:

    @Geoffrey, thanks for making those points about seeing people as individuals. It’s a pat — and wrong — assumption to think that someone is going to vote a certain way because of their last name. It’s also wrong to assume a paint-by-numbers sort of unity/solidarity among any specific groups.

    Say we looked at the results from female candidates in this election. Of three women that ran, one completely crushed it, and stands alone at the top in what should be considered her own statistical tier. Another wound up in the polar opposite position, and the third fell out just shy of the mean vote total. The mean of all three of their vote totals shook out to 3807 (compared to an overall mean of 3972). The widely disparate vote totals they each received suggests that voters are viewing them as individuals…when everything shakes back out so close to the mean, it makes it hard to describe a ‘female effect’ one way or the other.

    When comparing Nuon and Pech, especially when you use the 2011 results, it’s clear that voters aren’t lumping them in together. That says something important about the electorate. What if there is someone out there in the Khmer community with Van’s public service record and Vesna’s outgoing, gregarious personality? What if it’s someone with a strong Lowell pedigree and some private sector chops, too? Could be lightning in a bottle, politically. To hop frequencies for a second, what if someone from within that community can identify and take advantage of the recent performance trend of School Committee challengers — do low-information SC voters like to dedicate one of their six ovals to the (relatively) new name/face, all else equal?

    This was a funny CC election because w/the inclusion of both Milinazzo and Samaras, there were more than 9 candidates who benefited from either incumbency or widespread name recognition status. You can’t put more than 9 pegs into 9 holes, so that makes it even harder to draw big conclusions about what results do or don’t mean for groups or even individual candidates.

    Dick’s numbers about the ward/precinct turnout trends are encouraging, by the way. He is describing a slow-moving but tremendously powerful tide. Pitying people or blaming the system will not change the status quo (if anything, it will do the opposite)…but the person or group who’s paying enough attention to grab a board and start paddling will be able to ride in as things crest.

  4. Miriam Morgenstern says:

    This was a very interesting post. I wonder what the other numbers are – I mean how many Cambodian-Americans and other minorities are represented in other positions of power in the city.