Located just outside Washington, Arlington County, Virginia, is one of the richest, most educated and mostly white counties in the United States. It didn’t matter to Cambodian-American Chanda Choun that less than 11 percent of the population is Asian. When a seat opened on the Arlington County Board after the November 2017 election, he decided to run.
Choun, who the Arlington County Department of Voter Registration and Elections believes is the first Asian-American to run for office there, saw his opportunity to be of service to a place he now calls home.
“I didn’t see anybody with a military background, I didn’t see anybody with an immigrant background, and I didn’t see anybody with a tech background stepping up,” he said. “That’s all it came down to.”
But it wasn’t quite so cut and dried. Arlington exerts a pull on Choun, who calls the place “the love of my life.”
“I didn’t get to choose where I was born. I didn’t get to choose where the refugee resettlement agency placed my family. I didn’t get to choose where the Army sent me. But I can choose where I am now. And I choose Arlington,” according to Choun’s campaign website. “I will get married in Arlington. My children will run through the parks of Arlington. I will die in Arlington and be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.”
The five-member Arlington County Board is the jurisdiction’s governing body. Being a board member is a part-time job, one that can be the first rung in the political career ladder. But Choun says he has no aspiration to higher office.
Choun, a 30-year-old program manager at the cybersecurity company Securonix, came to the United States as a baby when his family fled Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, which ruled from 1975-1979, a time when 1.7 million people died.
Grateful that his family was chosen for resettlement in Connecticut from a Thai refugee camp for Cambodians, Choun enlisted in the U.S. Army at 17. He rose from private to staff sergeant and left after 12 years, although he remains on part-time reserve duty.
Choun began campaigning in February to “Make Arlington the North Star of Virginia,” as his campaign literature proclaims.
He secured by the March 29 deadline 125 signatures of registered Arlington County voters, which is required to get on the primary ballot. He believes he can defeat in November independent John Vihstadt, an established incumbent county board member.
First, however, Choun must defeat fellow Democrat Matt de Ferranti in the June 12 primary. Choun and de Ferranti have already faced off in party-sponsored public debates.
Choun says his background has prepared him for working on two critical issues facing the county: the budget shortfall and attracting more tech companies to fill Arlington’s many vacant offices.
He’s also aware of the importance of raising money and has raised more than $28,000, largely through a personal loan. De Ferranti has raised more than $35,000 from small donors.
Rithy Uong, the first Cambodian-American elected to any U.S. public office, served three terms on the City Council in Lowell, Massachusetts, which has the second-largest Cambodian community in the nation.
Uong, who says he is tracking Choun’s run, says a candidate must be able to raise funds, but it is critical for a candidate to build trust and rapport with voters. Voters, he says, care less about a candidate’s background and more about issues particular to their community.
Choun says his most immediate priority is building a nimble election campaign organization.
“Essentially, just as in any new endeavor, any sector, it’s a business startup,” he says. “I’d group it down to three domains: people, process, tools.”
Choun is self-managing his campaign until the voters decide his future in the June primary. However, he has hired creative director Minh Pham, a Vietnamese-American, who is also new to political campaigning. Pham also likens their effort to a startup. Choun has also hired a field manager, John Victoria.
While social media is an important tool for reaching out to voters, Choun says that to be seen as a member of the community, he needs to attend as many meet-and-greet events as possible in the 26-square-mile county.
“I’m bringing my message, my person to the community,” he says. “I don’t want the community to come to me.”
To that end Choun asked to hold his first meet-and-greet event at John Lyon Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3150, a veteran’s community meeting post in Arlington.
An Air Force veteran with 28 years of service, Patrick Pope met Choun before the event and said Arlington voters are open to candidates like Choun who don’t mirror the county’s white majority.
“I think a lot of Arlington voters are looking for somebody fresh, with some fresh ideas and fresh perspective, looking for someone who doesn’t have deep ties with a political machine, but instead speaks to power as a person of the community,” Pope said.
Lynn Borton, 56, another Arlington resident, has lived in the county since 1985. She learned about Choun’s event from Facebook and, like Pope, believes that voters need to get to know first-time candidates.
“I think there is value in meeting people,” Borton says. “You can learn something, you can make an assessment that is unmediated, literally un-media-ated, but I don’t know that that’s everything.”
Choun’s main challenges as a first-time candidate, Pope notes, will be getting Democratic Party support and name recognition.
But Pope believes voters also need to make an effort to meet the candidates.
“I think it’s important to get to know who your candidates are. You can’t do that just by watching the television ad or looking at a newspaper advertisement. You’ve got to get out and be engaged,” he says. “If you expect your representative to be engaged, then you need to be engaged as [an] informed voter.”