LONG BEACH — Cambodian immigrant Nil S. Hul, a cautious but optimistic man, had spent about $8,000 and hundreds of hours on his 6th District City Council campaign.
Sangiem, his wife of 24 years, had been left to run their small central-city grocery. His 19-year-old son, Nicholas, had temporarily given up surfing to run errands for the candidate.
So after Hul received just 154 votes last Tuesday and the winner got 1,515, Hul might not have been expected to claim success. But he did.
He had completed, he said, what he believes to be the first campaign by a Cambodian immigrant for an elective office in the United States. At least two Vietnamese, who also had fled their homeland since 1975, had run before, but never a Cambodian, said other leaders of the area's large Indochinese community.
Sees Force Emerging
Hul said that his campaign, though hastily conceived for a special election, should serve notice not only to the greater Long Beach community that a political force is emerging, but also to the Indochinese themselves
"My intention is to wake them up. . . . This is a steppingstone for other campaigns. You're going to hear from us again and again--from the city level and the county level and the state level and, later on, on the national level," said Hul, speaking of the nation's 800,000 Laotians, Vietnamese and Cambodians, about half of whom live in California.
"We are going to prepare our youngsters. I know we're going to make it. If not this time, then the next time or the next times," said Hul, 53, once a business executive and army officer in his native country, and now a grocer and county employment consultant.
It was appropriate, Hul said, that Long Beach--home of more Cambodians than any other American city--should be the site of that first campaign by a Cambodian-American. Government agencies estimate that about 25,000 of the 137,000 who fled after the Communist Khmer Rouge toppled the Cambodian government in 1975 live here.
Hul said he ran in the 6th District, where only about 100 Indochinese are registered to vote, because after a decade in this country, it was time to run.
"It's like somebody knocks on your head and says, 'Hey, you sleep too long,' " he said.
Sees Races in 4th, 6th Districts
And, said Hul, Long Beach voters should not be surprised if Indochinese run for City Council seats in the 4th and 6th districts in 1988. Many of the city's estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Indochinese live in those districts, he said.
Orange County, which has an Indochinese population of about 70,000 to 80,000, might also expect municipal candidates from the refugee communities that year, he said.
If they run, here or in Orange County, the candidates can be assured of the kind of regional support Hul drew, said Andy Anh, treasurer of the Bellflower-based Organization of Indochinese Americans. Anh said that group, of which Hul is a board member, has Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian officers from Long Beach, Bellflower, Los Angeles, Pasadena and Garden Grove.
There are sizable Indochinese communities in other area cities as well, including Westminster, Santa Ana, Pomona, and, in the San Gabriel Valley, Rosemead, Monterey Park, San Gabriel and Alhambra. Hul collected nearly all of his $8,000 from those communities with a low-key fund-raising effort, said Anh. Tony Lam of Westminster, a past president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce of Orange County, was one of those who contributed.
"It is time that we come forward and be involved in the democratic process," said Lam, who owns a restaurant in Garden Grove. "Another Cambodian and a Vietnamese friend came in and said Mr. Hul is running. Personally, I don't know him, but I said, 'yes, definitely.' I feel we should support him morally."
During Hul's campaign, the Organization of Indochinese Americans began walking door-to-door to register new citizens as voters, and Hul distributed 270 absentee-ballot applications. But there was little follow-up and many of those who filled out applications either did not vote or voted too late, Hul said. Some thought they had voted merely by filling out the application form, Anh said.
"That's a lesson we learned the hard way," Hul said. "Now we have firsthand knowledge and we know what to do next time."
Ran 4th of 10 Candidates
Even with that error, Hul placed fourth out of 10 candidates in an inner-city district dominated for years by the older, black residents who register to vote and then turn out. He was only 132 votes behind third-place finisher John Rambo, an Olympic medalist and longtime community activist.
Still, Hul and Anh said they are working now for the potential of the future--a potential to which major political parties are also responding in voter-registration drives in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Both Republican and Democratic parties, for example, set up registration tables at the Los Angeles Convention Center last fall to catch immigrants leaving mass citizenship ceremonies.