Long Beach Cambodians win big in local Democratic Party delegate election

Meet Vanndearlyn Vong—a President’s Scholar at Cal State Long Beach, a child of Cambodian immigrants and area Democrats’ newest delegate.

Her win, following an election at a Teamsters union hall near Bixby Knolls last Saturday, not only made her the youngest delegate to represent Democrats in the 70th Assembly District—which includes San Pedro, Signal Hill, Avalon and most of Long Beach—but showed the newfound power of a unified Cambodian community.

Vong, who said she was flooded with emotion when she found out she won, said she was proud of her community who came out in the hundreds to support her.

“My parents’ generation survived a genocide and came here to build a better life,” said the 19-year-old political science major and active Democrat, referring to the Khmer Rouge regime’s mass killing of its people in the 1970s. “Instead of just surviving, now we as a community can thrive.”

Charles Song, a leader in the local Cambodian community, called the win historic for the community.

“We’ve been here for well over 30 years yet we’ve had no representation,” Song said. “As much as we want to strive for prosperity for the community and better improvements we can’t until we find our own representation.”

The turnout also shows that the community continues to build off of the momentum it experienced during the Measure DDD campaign during the midterm election in November, he said. It establishes an independent redistricting commission in an effort to end gerrymandering and it passed with overwhelming support by voters.

“Absolutely it’s building off the redistricting measure,” said Song, who helped push it as co-chair of Equity for Cambodians. “Who would’ve thought that it would pass?”

While this election is comparably small in scale, Song said he looks forward to building up the younger generation.

“We are all working hard for the next step—2020,” Song said. “To galvanize people for the best candidate to represent us.”

Members of the Cambodian community turnout en masse on Saturday, Jan. 12 to vote for Democratic delegates who will represent the 70th Assembly District, which includes Long Beach. Photo courtesy of delegate-elect Vanndearlyn Vong.

As part of state party rules, each Assembly district elects seven self-identifying males and females each. Candidates sometimes run in slates, like a team, made up of 14 candidates who typically align politically. They can also run individually.

These delegates make up one-third of the Democratic State Central Committee, the governing body of the California Democratic Party. Their terms are for two years and they can vote for party officers, help establish the state party platform as well as endorse bills and candidates for legislative and statewide offices.

It’s one of the most democratic processes for electing delegates nationwide, said Sergio Carrillo who oversaw the election. He is one of the party’s regional directors and an elected officer for the area.

Republicans appoint their delegates.

In a region that struggles with low voter turnout, voter participation in elections like this one are even smaller, especially since hours are vastly shorter. On the recent rainy Saturday, registered Democrats had between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to cast their ballot.

Nearly half of voters in the 70th Assembly District (49 percent) are registered Democrats compared to just over 19 percent registered Republicans, according 2018 figures from the Secretary of State website. There’s a total of 266,152 registered voters.

On Saturday, a total of 725 people registered to vote, according to Carrillo. It is estimated that over 100 Cambodian community members were part of that group.

The turnout was more than double what party officers expected, Carrillo said.

The official result of the election is still yet to be determined, however. Due to a missing tally sheet some ballots were not counted so a complete recount of the ballots will take place at the Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento this week.

While Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump’s election motivated an increase in the number of delegate candidates for the area in 2017 compared to 2015 and 2019, the number of voters stayed high this time around.

In 2015, there were 32 candidates and 395 total votes, compared to 62 candidates and 770 votes in 2017 and 32 candidates and 725 votes in 2019.

“Democrats are much more motivated, engaged,” Carrillo noted. “Especially dealing with Trump in the White House. We thank him for energizing Democrats in California.”

Despite the discrepancy, the final count is likely to still show Vong ahead, Carrillo said. She led the pack with 396 votes, followed by Long Beach nurse and fellow Cambodian American from an opposing slate Pedora Keo with 328 votes. The next highest vote-getter received 254 votes.

“I think that speaks volumes to their organizing over the last couple of years,” Carrillo noted of the Cambodian community’s turnout.

Vong credits her victory to a vast network comprising family, friends, business and religious leaders and slate-mates.

“My mom and dad helped me engage with people in person and online,” Vong said. “Sometimes I would attend an event with my dad while my mom campaigned at another location, or vice versa.”

Cal State Long Beach student Vanndearlyn Vong hugs her mom at a Teamsters union hall Saturday, Jan. 12. Vong was elected one of 14 Democratic delegates to represent the 70th Assembly District, which includes Long Beach. Photo courtesy of Vong.

With the help of Song, Vong and her family even spoke—in Khmer and English—to the Cambodian community about the election on Khmer TV, the only Cambodian channel to broadcast in the greater Los Angeles area.

Vong also pointed to the experience she gained while working on the political campaigns for Councilman Roberto Uranga and businessman Josh Lowenthal for an Assembly seat. She was able to apply grassroots organizing and Get Out The Vote strategies, registering constituents if needed.

Vong said that being raised in a working-class immigrant family, she had to grow up early, and wants to make sure these common struggles are being addressed.

“My first job was at McDonald’s, which started a week before graduation,” said Vong, who graduated from Millikan High School. “These struggles are widely lived, but we aren’t doing enough as a party to address them. That’s why I wanted to bring my experiences to the table and run; not be on the menu.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that about 400 Cambodian community members came out to vote based on self-reporting, however, no official count by ethnicity was made. 

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.

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.