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'Immigrant, Orphan' Republican Wants To Take On Tsongas02:54
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Sam Meas stands in a brand-new, empty campaign office in Lowell. (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)
Sam Meas stands in a brand-new, empty campaign office in Lowell. (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

Sam Meas doesn't know how old he is. That's because in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge destroyed all the birth records in Cambodia, the country where he was born.

With a brilliant smile, Meas says he only knows that he's somewhere between 37 and 40. The Khmer Rouge took his father away. Then, war swept Meas into a refugee camp with his mother and sisters.

"The camp was overran by the invading Vietnamese force and I got separated from my family," Meas recalled. "I was taken by my older cousin and, along with many other Cambodian refugees, we escaped into Thailand, and to another refugee camp. After I arrived to the camp, my older cousin left me there after two weeks, and he never came back."

Meas came to the United States in the mid-1980s, when he was between 13 and 16 years old. He grew up with his adoptive family in Virginia and worked his way to a position as partner at State Street Global Advisors in Boston. He now lives in Haverhill with his wife and two daughters.

Two years ago, Meas was dismayed by the election of President Obama. So he decided to run for Congress against Democrat Niki Tsongas.

"Sam is the most electable Republican that we have statewide, because he really changes all the rules."

Michael Sullivan, former Lawrence mayor

"I am not your stereotypical Republican candidate," Meas said. "I am an immigrant. I am a self-made successful person. So I hope that having that quality will inspire a lot of people to believe in my candidacy, and that's how I'm going to win."

Meas is counting on the support of Asian-Americans.

"I am hopeful that my candidacy would inspire and engage many Asian-Americans to be politically involved in the American political process," Meas said. "I have not seen many Asian-Americans actively taking part in the political process. Think about it, in the Massachusetts state Legislature, of the 160 state representatives, I don't believe there's an Asian-American."

Meas visits Le Petit Café, where Lowell's Cambodian-American community gathers to talk politics over a game of Cambodian chess.

"Queen moves only one step forward," one of the patrons explained. "It's like a king."

"What about the bishop?" Meas asked.

"It moves only one step," the patron answered.

People here say it's important to them that, finally, a Cambodian-American is trying to get elected to such high office.

"They very proud that a person like Sam would run for Congress," said P. Channing Ouch.

Meas faces daunting odds. The Cambodian-Americans who are excited about his run may not be much help to him.

The Census Bureau estimates that in all of Massachusetts, there are only 22,000 Cambodians — less than 0.3 percent of the population. And many are Democrats ineligible to vote in a Republican primary. In the fifth Congressional district, all Asian-Americans together only make up 5 percent of the population.

But Meas is not just making his pitch to Asian-Americans. At the senior center in Lawrence, he tries to win over Latina voters.

"Hello, ladies, how are you?" he asked. "Como esta? Me llamo Sam Meas. Nice to meet you. I'm running for Congress."

Sam Meas grins easily. He faces three other Republican opponents in a Sept. 14 primary. (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)
Sam Meas grins easily. He faces three other Republican opponents in a Sept. 14 primary. (Jess Bidgood for WBUR)

"I'm for you!" someone exclaimed.

"Thank you," Meas said. "I came here as an immigrant, an orphan, with nothing but the clothes on my back."

"Are you legitimate?" one of the women asked.

"Excuse me?" Meas responded.

"I mean, are you legal?" the woman asked, laughing. "Okay, I want to see your papers."

Meas understands that he also has to appeal to white voters, who make up 80 percent of the district. One of the ways he does this is by talking about illegal immigration. Republicans this year are jumping all over the issue to get themselves elected.

Meas believes that as an immigrant himself, he has especially strong credentials on the issue. He used them recently at a fundraiser at a golf club in Stow.

"I waited three years in a refugee camp to come to the United States of America," Meas told an audience of about 30 people. "Now, I don't think it's fair for someone else to jump in line and cut it to come to America and take full advantage of the generosity of our social system. That is wrong."

One of the people in the audience is the former Republican mayor of Lawrence, Michael Sullivan. He thinks Meas has a shot at beating Tsongas if he can win the primary.

"Sam is the most electable Republican that we have statewide," Sullivan said, "because he really changes all the rules. Here's a guy who has come over here, had a tough, tough life, but has given all of the gratitude to this country. This guy has lived it."

But before Meas can run against Tsongas, he has to live through the primary. He faces three other Republicans. One of them, Jon Golnik, last reported that he has more than $100,000 in his campaign account. Meas says he raised just $14,000 this past quarter. So right now, he has no choice but to rely on a band of volunteers to keep his campaign going.

This program aired on July 14, 2010.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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