ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — In last week’s June 12 Democratic primary elections in Arlington County, a Washington suburb, Cambodian-American candidate Chanda Choun did not garner enough votes to win the first leg in a race for a county board seat.
But despite losing after a hard-fought campaign, the county’s first Asian-American candidate has encouraged other non-traditional candidates to run to make local US elections more competitive.
Choun ran his first-ever election campaign on a platform of being a different candidate – an immigrant, a veteran, and a tech professional – in a county with an Asian population of only 11 percent. He told VOA Khmer at a small gathering with campaign staff and friends following the results that he was glad that he ran.
“I wanted to be the first to break through that wall for any non-traditional candidate. And not just Cambodian-Americans or Asian Americans, but also military veterans and millennials, young people, people with tech or business background. Just anybody who is not a typical politician,” he said.
According to unofficial results from the Virginia Department of Elections released less than two hours after Tuesday’s polls closed at 7 p.m., Choun received 4,589 votes, or 39 percent, losing to Matt De Ferranti, who received over 60% with 7,075 votes. The Democratic winner will go on to compete against the incumbent independent John Vihstadt in November.
Surrounded by colleagues and friends at a supporter’s house after the final votes came in, Choun reflected on the main lessons from his campaign: getting to better know the community he now calls home.
“When you endeavor in this public process, you get to know literally thousands of people. People who live in different neighborhoods. People with different jobs, different backgrounds, different families. I myself and the rest of the group, we’ve been in North Arlington, South Arlington, West Arlington, East Arlington. So that’s just enriched all of us as a whole and also enriched the person at the other side of the door,” he said.
According to the Arlington County Department of Voter Registration and Elections, if Choun had not run, there would have been no Democratic primary elections. And even with Choun entering the race, voter turnout for the July 12 Democratic and Republican primaries was just 8.62 percent, 10 percent lower compared to the county’s 2017 primaries.
As the vote counts were still coming in, his rival, de Ferranti was at a larger gathering with friends and campaign staff at an Irish pub. Like Choun, the 40-year-old educator-turned-activist is also a first-time candidate, but with native roots in the region and more experienced with Arlington’s community issues. De Ferranti announced his campaign one month earlier than Choun. He told VOA Khmer that he was expecting a strong rival with a diverse candidate like Choun.
“We’re a stronger party because Chanda was in the race. I am a better candidate because he has been in the race. And regardless of which one of us ends up winning tonight, he has a bright future in the party,” he said.
De Ferranti then joined his supporters, who were excited about winning prospects as 76 percent of the votes counted already showed de Ferranti had a decisive 20-percent lead. At Choun’s more sober post-election gathering an hour later, after all of the votes were counted, Choun immediately called his rival to congratulate him on his victory and to offer his future support
Choun said he had learned from his rival de Ferranti about the importance of strong connection to a party and community networks and political experience. He said he would adopt those strategies for future races.
Despite the loss, Choun was an important alternative for the 4,500 who voted for him. One of his supporters, Juline Kaleyias, 30, who works in investor relations, voted in Arlington for the first time. She told VOA Khmer outside of a polling station that she knew that Choun lacked political experience but said she liked his background as an immigrant and military man.
“I think the fact that he is an immigrant coming from Cambodia and [that] he served in the army. I know he is younger and he might not have as much experience as the other candidate but his profile seemed like he’d be pretty motivated and his views would align with mine,” she said.
Another voter, Matt Amitrano, 40, has lived in Arlington County for ten years. He met de Ferranti twice outside a Metro rail station but has not met Choun in person. He believes that even at party primaries, it is important that voters have as many diverse candidates and ideas to choose from as possible so that best ideas can emerge.
“You need to have a very diverse party to have different backgrounds, different ideas, different approaches to problems. And then it becomes based on a contest on who can sell what they’re saying works. So I want that clash of ideas, I want the clash of people and this way I feel I’m voting for the candidate that can actually deliver,” he said.
Choun encouraged other non-traditional candidates, including Cambodian-Americans, other Asian Americans, or veterans, to run and learn from his experience.
“This would truly be a loss if nobody else followed in my footsteps.”