Eight years ago, Lowell’s Rady Mom became the first Cambodian American state lawmaker in the country.

Mom says he didn’t set out to make history, but to be a voice for his community and the other residents of his district, of all ethnic backgrounds. In the years since he was first elected, he’s earned another distinction — in a State House where incumbents routinely cruise unopposed to reelection, he’s one of just a handful of Democrats who regularly face primary challengers.

This year, Mom’s two opponents in the Sept. 6 Democratic primary are also Cambodian-born men: Lowell School Committee member Dominik Lay and Tara Hong, a recent UMass Lowell graduate. With no Republican on the ballot, the winner is essentially guaranteed the House seat.

After Long Beach, Calif., Lowell is home to the second-largest Cambodian American population in the nation. The former mill town on the Merrimack River has hosted various immigrant groups throughout its history, and in the 1980s saw a wave of Cambodian refugees fleeing civil war and the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge.

Now, as Lowell’s historically white political power circles gradually diversify, UMass Lowell political science professor John Cluverius says the three-way contest for the 18th Middlesex House district is part of a broader story of the local Cambodian community “starting to flex its political muscle.”

It’s a process seen in state legislative and Congressional districts across the country, where preferences and rifts emerge after candidates from minority communities first break through with early wins, he said.

“In a typical primary, a textbook primary in this district, you would expect a white candidate and a Cambodian American candidate, but that’s not happening here,” Cluverius said. “I think that reflects the division within that community, not just on policy or ideology but on sort of broader stylistic concerns as well. To me, what wins this race is not what we think of as typical divisions in the Democratic party, but rather personal relationships and door-to-door organizing.”

A few weeks before the primary, all three candidates say they’ve been out talking to voters and trying to make those connections. Each cites economic concerns and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic as top issues facing the district, but they’re pitching themselves to the electorate in distinct ways.

Rep. Rady Mom sits on a leather couch in a blue-walled room, with artwork, a guitar, golf clubs and a campaign sign visible in the background.
Rep. Rady Mom, a Lowell Democrat, is running for a fifth term.
Katie Lannan GBH News

Hong, the youngest candidate in the race at 22 years old, casts himself as a progressive reformer who wants to push back against the top-down nature of House leadership. Lay describes himself as an independent voice whose experience on the School Committee and working for state Sen. Ed Kennedy positions him to solve problems.

Mom gives examples of funding he and the Lowell delegation have secured for the city, for park improvements, new signage and road repairs. He recounts times he’s connected constituents in need — one whose passport expired before a trip to his daughter’s wedding, another facing deportation — with state and federal officials for help, and touts his continued advocacy with state leaders for replacement of the Rourke Bridge, a bumpy, rusty span over the Merrimack River that was meant to be temporary when it was installed in 1983.

He says he’s developed connections and working relationships across state and city government.

“It’d be very, very tough for a freshman rep to have that ability, and I know that from personal experience,” Mom said.

Mom’s challengers both say they’d like to improve communication with people who live in the district.

A man in a suit and yellow tie sits on a gray couch. The couch is topped with a red blank and two of its three pillows have the image of the Cambodian flag.
Lowell School Committee member Dominik Lay is one of three candidates in the Democratic primary for the 18th Middlesex House race.
Katie Lannan GBH News

Lay says he spends time in the community because of his work with the School Committee, which has included efforts to make sure papers the district sends home are properly translated into languages other than English. He said his supporters back him because they “want to do what is best for the community, and not for an individual.”

“I feel that I have the right experience, the right character, and I feel that I have the right attitude that you want to have in a state rep,” Lay said.

When Hong knocks on doors, he said he’s been asked if he’s old enough to run for office. But once a conversation starts, the reaction to a fresh face is generally positive.

A man with black hair and glasses stands on the patio of a coffee shop, with a brick building and umbrella-covered table behind him.
Tara Hong is one of two Democrats mounting a primary challenge against Lowell Rep. Rady Mom.
Katie Lannan GBH News

“The majority of people believe that it’s time to get some young people into this kind of position because the world can just keep going, and the person who’s going to take over is the young folks,” Hong said. “It’s the younger generation in our country that will continue the [legacy of] people that currently serve ... and make it better for the next generation as well.”

The district spans Lowell’s Acre and Highlands neighborhoods. It’s an ethnically diverse area where the Catholic church offers Mass in English, Vietnamese, Khmer, Spanish and Burmese. Its population, according to U.S. Census data, is about 41% white, 32% Asian, 17% Hispanic and 7% Black. Thirty-one percent are foreign-born.

The district is also home to many of Lowell’s Cambodian residents and businesses. Cluverius says the seat takes on a symbolic importance as “one of the footholds for the power of the Cambodian American community, both in Lowell and Massachusetts.”

In the years since Mom first joined the House, Lowell has elected Massachusetts’ first female Cambodian American lawmaker, Rep. Vanna Howard, and inaugurated the nation’s first Cambodian American mayor, Sokhary Chau. The city council and school committee diversified in the wake of a voting-rights lawsuit, filed by Latino and Asian American residents, which forced Lowell to drop its all at-large model for municipal elections.

“It’s not that this coalition and this community is fighting for its political existence anymore, or its simple representation,” Cluverius said. “But instead you see a community that looks like any other community with political power, which is that the divisions within start emerging more, and so you start seeing challenges within that community to incumbent representatives in that community.”

After a community notches initial wins, Cluverius said, voters can start to drill down more into their policy and style preferences rather than worrying about holding onto a seat for representation’s sake.

Soben Ung, co-founder and publisher of the independent newspaper Khmer Post USA, said the area is now a campaign trail stop for candidates for an array of offices, reflecting increased engagement with the Cambodian American community. Attorney General Maura Healey, accompanied by local officials including Mom and Rep. Lori Trahan, visited the Cambodia Town district in May as part of her bid for governor.

“I think the engagement level now, in the last couple years, this is the highest there's ever been at any point in time,” Ung said. “We can see that as the community is growing, there is also growing pains because they’re not just, ‘Oh, let's put one Cambodian candidate to that office and everybody rally behind that person.’”

Ung said the community has long had its own factions, including divisions related to politics in Cambodia. A 2016 visit to Lowell by Hun Manet, the son of Cambodian prime Minister Hun Sen, sparked protests by people concerned with the ruling party’s human-rights record and grip on power in the country.

In video interviews for her news outlet, Ung pressed Hong and Lay about their stances on Cambodian politics. Ung said people who came here as refugees still live with the trauma from their experiences and, especially if their family remains in Cambodia, can’t easily put those issues behind them.

Tensions around Cambodian politics were a key point of friction in the 2018 primary, where Mom won with 35 percent of the vote in a four-way race that featured two other Cambodian American candidates. In 2016, Mom prevailed over three challengers, including another Cambodian American on either side of the aisle. In the most recent 2020 race, he ran unopposed.

Mom, for his part, said he doesn’t think the competition this year reflects divisions within the city’s Cambodian community.

“I get it, it’s very easy to say that,” he said. “But I can say that, wow, what an inspiring story that they can see that this guy that didn't speak a word of English can do it, and they too can. But that's what democracy is, isn't it?”