A historic moment: Suely Saro on track to be first Cambodian American elected to Long Beach City Council 

The congratulating comments in the chat box came pouring in after initial election results Tuesday night showed 6th District council candidate Suely Saro in a comfortable lead against incumbent Dee Andrews to represent Central Long Beach.

Many supporters voiced their excitement for change, pointing to the 19% lead Saro secured right away as proof voters want new leadership.

Perhaps the most striking remark noting the significance of Saro’s campaign and quite possible win was this: “Waiting for 45yr for this,” one supporter typed during her virtual election night party on Zoom, a sign of the times and reminder that the coronavirus pandemic is still a very real threat.

If her lead holds, Saro, a 39-year-old Cal State Los Angeles professor, is on track to become the first Cambodian American to be elected to the Long Beach City Council, a historic moment for the nation’s largest concentration of Khmer people outside of Cambodia.

Historic moment

“I’m deeply proud to be the first Cambodian American woman to be elected to the Long Beach City Council and to join the handful of Cambodian American women serving in public office across the country,” Saro told the Post in an email Wednesday.

Born in a Thai refugee camp after her parents fled the genocide in Cambodia, Southern California became a new home for her family and thousands of other refugees. Saro has lived in Long Beach for over a decade.

It is estimated that there are between 50,000 and 70,000 Cambodians living in Long Beach, a population that first grew in increasing rates in the mid-1970s as they fled genocide in their homeland at the hands of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime.

Despite decades living in the city, Cambodians in Long Beach never managed to elect one of their own—though they’ve tried multiple times. The first known Cambodian to run for a local council seat was Sandy Blankenship in the 1990s.

In Lowell, Massachusetts, home to the nation’s second largest Cambodian population, two Cambodian Americans made local history in 2017 when one was elected to the city council and the other on the school committee. That same year, in Skokie, Illinois, Khemarey Khoeun, the first Cambodian American woman in the nation was elected to public office.

Saro’s lead comes on the heels of a community on the rise, one looking for its own political voice and, ultimately, for more representation.

Early on, Saro’s campaign looked to be at risk when fellow Cambodian Steve Meng also threw his hat in the ring. He later dropped out in order to unite the Cambodian vote behind Saro and have a stronger chance to beat Andrews, the so-called “Son of the Sixth” who has spent the bulk of his 80 years in Long Beach and works as a substitute teacher at Cabrillo High School.

But during the campaign, Andrews touted his work for the district’s Cambodian community, which includes the Cambodia Town corridor on Anaheim Street.

He has financially supported multiple Cambodian cultural events over the years and contributed city council funds toward a Killing Fields Memorial Garden in Cambodia Town that just broke ground in early February.

Andrews won his current term as a write-in candidate before Long Beach’s new law eliminated the write-in option but added an additional third term for council members.

He was the first council member in Long Beach to be re-elected to a third full term without going to a runoff.

During that 2016 election, Andrews won with 51% of the vote after his campaign office called for a hand tally of 144 under-voted ballots. At the time, Andrews chalked it up in part to his Cambodian supporters not spelling his name correctly or properly filling out the ballots.

However, this time around, 6th District Cambodians rallied heavily around Saro in an effort to see one of their own on the City Council.

Latino vote

With both candidates securing a base of Cambodian and Black voters, reaching out to the district’s largest ethnic group, Latinos, was key in the November runoff.

In the March primary, Saro received 45% of the votes while Andrews garnered 29% in a crowded field of six candidates.

“Latinos make up the majority of the district and so if we have an organized African American community and an organized Cambodian community the question is then, where do Latinos go?” said Cal State Long Beach political science professor Justin Levitt shortly after the March primary. “That’s likely to be part of the dynamic here.”

Levitt pointed to third-place finisher Ana Arce, a 31-year-old Long Beach native and Latina who garnered 19% of the vote without the thousands of dollars in contributions and multiple endorsements Saro received, nor the reputation of being an incumbent like Andrews.

During her election night watch party in March—before public gatherings were banned—Saro told the Post she would continue “to build a broad coalition” of supporters, including community leaders, young people and residents of different backgrounds.

On Wednesday, Saro pointed to the early election results as a reflection of the strong support she gained “across demographic and ideological lines.”

Andrews, meanwhile, eventually received an endorsement from Arce after the primary. In Spanish language campaigning material, Arce is quoted as saying “Dee Andrews is the best candidate to represent the Latino community in the Long Beach City Council.” But even that endorsement didn’t seem to help his campaign in the November runoff.

Sixth District issues

The 6th District, which borders Signal Hill to the east and includes Poly High School and Long Beach City College’s Pacific Coast Campus, has some of the city’s lowest life expectancy rates, highlighting a large disparity locally that community activists call “a tale of two cities.”

In an October debate organized by the Post and other local media publications, both candidates acknowledged the high number of coronavirus infections in the district and the need for more affordable housing.

On Wednesday, Saro re-emphasized her commitment to improve the quality of life and address rising homelessness in the district—issues she attributed to a “failed leadership that didn’t respond to the challenges” faced by residents. “I’m going to fight to revitalize our approach and bring badly-needed services and relief to our neighborhoods,” she said.

As Andrews battled the most challenging race of his political career, in September the Post learned about turmoil within his office spilling into the public spotlight and an October report questioned Andrews’ possibly using his role as vice mayor in supporting bingo gatherings during a pandemic.

Andrews did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Unlike other city council races during this election that racked up hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions and resorted to disparaging mailers, the District 6 race was relatively reserved.

A political action committee supporting in part Andrews’ campaign raised about $178,000 in cash contributions and his campaign raised about $64,000, according to city finance records. Andrews also received the endorsement of Mayor Robert Garcia in his bid for a fourth term.

Saro’s campaign raised about $85,000 in cash contributions, according to city finance records, however, she had no PAC supporting her campaign. While Saro did not receive the mayor’s endorsement, she did receive support from Long Beach council members Jeannine Pearce, Roberto Uranga and Rex Richardson as well as other elected officials throughout the city and region.

Current election results as of Wednesday afternoon show Saro with 5,258 votes, or 59% of the vote while Andrews has 3,712 votes, or 41%.

Los Angeles County, which is in charge of Long Beach’s elections, must count and report final election results to the Secretary of State by Dec. 1. All statewide results will be certified by Dec. 11.

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Stephanie Rivera is the community engagement editor for the Long Beach Post. After graduating from CSULB with a degree in journalism, Stephanie worked for Patch Latino and City News Service before coming to the Long Beach Post in 2015.
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