Hong Net has a story to tell. But it goes beyond his biography.
Hong, one of three Democratic candidates seeking the Essex County 11th District seat in the state legislature, believes his experiences escaping horror and helping others makes him the right choice for West Lynn and Nahant voters in the Sept. 4 primary.
It’s the early years of that biography that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Hong lived through the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, a vicious, ultra nationalist Communist regime that murdered well over one million people in the 1970s. Hong’s mother died in a forced labor camp, and he was separated from the rest of his family.
“When the Vietnamese Communists defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979, I escaped the labor camp and walked across a mountain range to live in a refugee camp in Thailand,” Hong said. “I was there for about three years. It was very tough.”
The United Nations-supported camp was dissolved three years later, when Thai officials dumped the refugees into a landmine-laden forest.
He came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1982, and, with the support of his foster family, made the most of his new life. Hong graduated from UMass Amherst with a degree in political science. He worked with the United Nations to help the Cambodian government as it slowly rebuilt from the devastation following the civil war and genocide. While there, he opened one of the first English-language schools in the country.
“I worked with top cabinet ministers every day on certain issues like education, public safety, economic development and promoting tourism. I feel that I can bring that experience here,” Hong said.
Working abroad to build schools left a deep impression on Hong, who said education is the key to improving people’s lives. That’s why he believes improving schools should be a top priority in the district.
“My education allowed me to become who I am,” Hong said.
First on the list is making sure Lynn gets more money to build new schools.
“Classrooms are too crowded. It’s hard for kids to learn, and it’s difficult for teachers to teach, when there are 30 to 40 students in class,” Hong said.
Other educational initiatives he supports are increases in early education spending, improving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, making the state’s colleges and universities more affordable for families, and asking recent graduates to work with a government or nonprofit group in exchange for this support.
“They know they’ll be able to get a job after schools, but they’ll also get experience,” Hong said.
Hong said development in the city must involve both business and residential components. That starts on the water’s edge.
“The waterfront is such a beautiful place and it needs investment,” Hong said.
Parts of that investment would be practical, he said. Things such as an overpass to connect the city with Walmart, and breakers in the harbor to help control storm surges, would make the area more attractive for development.
Another component is public safety. Initiatives like community policing and securing funding for a new Nahant fire station would help provide stability for the communities.
“If you don’t feel safe, nobody will want to come here,” he said.
Hong believes the city and state can do more to help low-income residents stay in the city.
“I welcome new buildings, but don’t forget the people who have lived in the city for a long time, and they want to continue to help the city, and don’t push them out,” he said.
Developers who come into Lynn should build more affordable housing as part of their projects, or kick in for a fund to help support affordable and low-income housing options, he said.
“Developers need to think about giving back, not just to come and use our resources and neglect the people here who cannot afford (higher rent),” he said.
Hong, along with the other Democratic candidates Pete Capano and Drew Russo, opposes Northeastern University’s proposed expansion in Nahant, saying wildlife habitats in East Point could be irrevocably harmed by the project.
“There’s some endangered wildlife habitats there, and if they expand, they will destroy that wildlife,” he said. “Anything that impacts the quality of people’s life, the quality of wildlife, that’s what I’m against.”
Hong said he contacted the New England field office for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consult with the potential habitat impacts the project could impose on East Point.
Hong isn’t ready to embrace a Plan B, floated by opponents to the development, which would see Northeastern build along the Lynn shore instead.
“We would have to talk with residents in Lynn first,” he said.
As a former refugee, Hong has a deep commitment to helping immigrant populations in the district and across the country.
“I’ve lived this, so it’s personal to me,” he said. “I want to see a policy that’s fair to all.”
With Washington in total gridlock over the topic, it’s up to the states to help craft immigration policies that work. For Hong, that means supporting the Safe Communities act, a state proposal that combines several policies to support immigrants. The proposal failed in the legislature earlier this year.
Hong said it’s important to screen immigrants to keep criminals out of the district, but people who come here for a better life need our help.
“We also have money to support people who are experts in the immigration issue, like the lawyers, like (the Essex County Community Organization),” he said. “As an elected official, our job is to work with (immigrants) and fight for them.”
He expects to deliver that message —that he’s here to fight for the residents of the district — in the final days of the campaign.