Fleeing war, Sokhary Chau first came to Lowell as a child refugee, now he helps lead the city

In a visit to the Kennedy School, the country’s first Cambodian American mayor argues that there has never been a better time for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to run for office.


  • Daniel Harsha

The exterior of Lowell town hall

Lowell, Massachusetts’s imposing Romanesque Revival city hall sits a few blocks from the Merrimack River and the mill buildings and canals that powered this early industrial city into a manufacturing powerhouse. For most of its history, Lowell’s mayors were chosen from the ranks of the city’s Protestant business elite, and later, from politicians who hailed from its many Irish and French-Canadian neighborhoods. Sokhary Chau, city hall’s current incumbent and the country’s first Cambodian American mayor, was elected just last year with the support of the city’s sizeable Asian American community, many of whom arrived in the United States as refugees fleeing war and famine in Southeast Asia.

“I felt intimidated walking into city hall,” recalled Chau, speaking to a group of students as part of a discussion on Asian American and Pacific Islander leadership in local government sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia. “You’re not familiar with the customs of where to go, which office, which department is here,” said Chau, looking back on the start of his term as mayor last year.

As the city’s first Asian American mayor, Chau wanted city hall to be more accessible to city residents, many of whom felt a sense of disconnect from the city’s political power structure. “I really wanted city hall to be very welcoming, and one of the things to make it welcoming is to have people from our community be staff there.”


“I don’t think that there’s a better time for any member of the AAPI community to run for office,” said Lowell Mayor Sokhary Chau to Kennedy School students.

Chau is also pushing to make the city’s police force more representative of Lowell’s growing Asian American community. He estimates that only about 5% of the city’s police officers are Asian Americans, far below the 25% of Lowell residents who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander. “The first Asian police officer was [hired] right about 30 years ago, and to this day there has not been one [AAPI] police officer that has been promoted to a rank like a sergeant or a lieutenant.”

The paucity in Asian American police officers, particularly in senior ranks in Lowell, makes community policing a challenge, Chau argued. But It also illustrates one example of how pathways towards greater economic and social progress are still blocked for many immigrant communities, “That is kind of disheartening because it’s like, yes, you are welcome to come in, but there’s really never an opportunity for advancement.”

Chau is hoping that his election will help silence the stereotype that he has regularly confronted of Asian Americans being disengaged from politics, or as he puts it “that we don’t voice our opinion, what’s of interest to us, what’s important to us.” At the beginning of his political career, Chau wasn’t sure how his campaign for office would ultimately be embraced. “When I started to run, I began to see so many other members in the Asian community step forward and thank me, saying, ‘It’s about time, I wish you can do it.’”

Looking back at his first year in office as mayor, Chau encouraged students to speak up and find their collective voice as his constituents in Lowell have done. “I don’t think that there’s a better time for any member of the AAPI community to run for office.”