From the Killing Fields to the Tea Party

Michael C. Moynihan

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…

…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…

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