Lowell, Mass.—Sam Meas isn't your typical congressional candidate. For one thing, the Cambodian refugee doesn't know his birthday.
"I tell people I am 38 years old—plus or minus two years." In 1973, Meas's father was sent to be "re-educated" by the Khmer Rouge and was never heard from again. During the chaos following the regime's collapse in 1979, Meas was separated from his mother. He never saw her again. Marching night and day toward the Thai border with a cousin, Meas recalls stepping over corpses and watching bloated bodies float down jungle waterways.
After years in a Thai refugee camp, in 1986 Meas was brought to the United States by the aid organization Catholic Charities. He spent months watching General Hospital and All My Children to improve his vocabulary. Twenty-five years later—after stints as a shoe-shine boy, a grocery-bagger, and a financial adviser—Meas is learning the craft of politics. "Health care should not be in the realm of government," he tells me in carefully accented English at a Cambodian restaurant where he is something of a celebrity. America is "on a slow path towards socialism." And "we need to get government out of managing people's lives."
Meas, who describes this country as "heaven on Earth," is running in Massachusetts' fifth district, currently represented by Democrat Niki Tsongas. Of the four Republicans competing to run against her, only Meas and Jon Golnik have garnered significant media attention. Golnik, a moderate Republican from Carlisle whose media team includes veterans of Sen. Scott Brown's campaign, is widely expected to prevail in the Sept. 14 primary. Meas is hobbled by an almost total absence of campaign money, an inexperienced campaign staff, and the difficulty of being a self-described "social conservative" in a liberal state.
And yet Meas, who calls himself the "new face of the Republican party," has attracted considerable attention from local Republican activists. Though he rejects the "tea party candidate" label, Meas acknowledges sharing many of the "values and ideas" of the insurgent movement, pointing out that he has spoken at tea party events in the state. "I've never met any tea party activists who have fangs or horns," he jokes. Instead, he argues, they are merely "the silent majority of Americans" for whom government has grown too large.
Meas prefers to identify as a Reagan Republican. Unlike the countless other Reagan votaries in the party, Meas offers a convincing claim that the 40th president was quite literally his personal savior. "I owe my life to him; he allowed me to come here and he fought Communism," he says.
Like most in the grass-roots movement, Meas rails against the health-care bill and illegal immigration, and says we need to slash personal and corporate tax rates. But he can also drift into the hyperbolic, declaring that "having lived under a totalitarian regime . . . I know what it is like to have lost all of your freedom"—stopping just short of comparing the Obama administration's policies to those of the Khmer Rouge.
Meas possesses a pronounced libertarian streak. At a recent debate, he struck a rare discordant note when he echoed the heterodox Republican Rep. Ron Paul in arguing that the Federal Reserve needs to be audited, then eliminated. Later in the same debate he waved a copy of the Constitution, declaring it the only document upon which all laws need be judged.
According to local election watchers, Meas is unlikely to emerge victorious: Golnik has more money and better name recognition. But the battle for Tsongas's seat is heating up. "In the absence of polling," says David Paleologos, a pollster at Suffolk University in Boston, "the district looks competitive if independent candidates don't draw significant numbers of votes from the Republicans."
He points out that Tsongas, despite her name recognition (she is the widow of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas), won her seat in a surprisingly tight race against an unknown Republican challenger. Massachusetts Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Nassour argues that Tsongas "faces an uphill battle." In 2009, Scott Brown won the district handily. This year, just how disaffected voters are with the status quo is anyone's guess.
Both Meas and Golnik are focusing on jobs. The cities of Lawrence and Lowell have unemployment numbers—17 percent and 11.8 percent, respectively—that are significantly higher than the national average. Meas is relying on the votes of Lowell's 20,000 Cambodian-Americans. His campaign is furiously attempting to un-enroll those currently registered as Democrats, since in Massachusetts voting in the Republican primary is open only to independents and registered Republicans.
Meas sighs deeply when conversation drifts back to his family destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. He says he forgets what his mother looks like and, if she is indeed still alive, would have no way of identifying her. "I'm hoping that after I win this congressional campaign, I'll be famous and I can go back to Cambodia and people will recognize me. Then we can do DNA tests."
But even if he doesn't, this longshot Republican vows to stay involved in politics. "I'm not doing this for glory," he stresses, "for there is no glory in politics." He is doing it, he says, out of a sense of duty.