Sam Meas could teach President Obama and Governor Deval Patrick a thing or two about hope. But unlike them, he hasn’t written tomes about himself, which is too bad because you’d want to read his life story.
“Hope,” he says, paraphrasing his favorite movie, The Shawshank Redemption, “is the only thing.” Hope took him from Cambodia’s killing fields – “a virtual prison” – over landmines, through “a filthy refugee camp” to America. Now the former financial advisor hopes to unseat Congresswoman Nikki Tsongas (MA-5). “I am not an establishment candidate,” he tells me in the most understated of understatements.
Indeed he isn’t. Born in Cambodia, sometime between 1970 and 1972, Meas isn’t sure how old he is, nor does he know how many siblings he had. His birth records and his father were lost in Pol Pot’s murderous reign. His family fled, to a refugee camp near the Thai border, but that, too, was overrun when the Vietnamese military invaded, separating him from his family. In the confusion, a cousin whisked him away to a Thai refugee camp, where they stayed for two weeks. His cousin left him there and returned to Cambodia, never to be heard from again.
Alone in the refugee camp, Meas lived a Dickensian existence – chopping wood, babysitting, cooking, and doing the laundry for other Cambodian refugees. He slowly learned English through UN-sponsored classes and, after convincing a customs agent that he didn’t know what his own birthday was, he received permission to immigrate to the United States through Catholic Charities in Virginia.
Before the plane even landed, he learned the generosity of Americans, when a stranger, upon learning his story, walked up and down the aisle, collecting over a hundred dollars for him and the other orphans to start afresh in America. “We went from hell to heaven in twenty-four hours,” says Meas.
“In America, everything was new,” he says, laughing and recalling stories of his first time purchasing Coke from a vending machine or sleeping in a hotel. Through the help of his adopted family and the Cartoon Network, Meas learned English and assimilated, a lesson he fears is lost in our current debate over immigration. “I waited three years in a filthy refugee camp,” he says. Immigrants must “assimilate to the American way of life, not try and change it.”
Today, Meas is the first Cambodian-American to run for congress in the country. Running in deep blue Massachusetts from his home in Haverill, Massachusetts, he quotes Ronald Reagan, the last Republican presidential candidate to win Massachusetts, and promises to be an “honest citizen legislator.” He believes in education, stressing the need for more charter schools. “American children deserve the best education money can buy.”
It’s a welcome respite from his opponent, Niki Tsongas, the widow of Senator Paul Tsongas, and a solid Democratic vote in the House, voting with Nancy Pelosi some 98 percent of the time. Tsongas, a freshman in Massachusetts’s most conservative district stumbled during a town hall meeting last summer when she poorly explained why Congress is exempt from its wonderful health bill. After she stammered about how she gets an “array” of health care options, voters shouted back that they, too, want a choice.
Voters may not get a choice in health care, but should Meas win the September 14 primary, he’ll give them a choice on Election Day. “She’s so convoluted, she’s so out of touch,” Meas says. “The things that many of us in her district oppose – the health care bill, funding ACORN – she voted for all of them.” Tsongas, the newest member of the Massachusetts House delegation, narrowly won her first campaign for Congress 51 percent to 46 percent in a 2007 special election against Republican Jim Ogonowski.
Meas plans to bring many first time voters to the poll with him. Over 20,000 Cambodians live in Lowell, the main city of the 5th congressional district, making it the second largest Cambodian population in the United States, after Long Beach.
He needs more than Cambodian-Americans if he hopes to win, but sure enough, he has been receiving strong support across the district. Lowell mayor Mike Sullivan tells NPR that Meas is one of the most electable Republicans statewide, while Frank McNamara, former U.S. attorney, has signed up as his campaign finance chairman, hoping to infuse the grassroots campaign with much needed cash.
Key to winning support of the blue collar, jobs-depressed district is Meas’s stand on illegal immigration. He strongly supports Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who he tells me understands that “we are a sovereign nation of laws,” without which, “we’d have anarchy.”
Anarchy – and worse – is something Meas also knows well. And it’s something he hopes to prevent.
Charles C. Johnson, a native of Milton, Massachusetts, is a Claremont Review of Books fellow in California.