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.