By Hannah Esqueda
Photos courtesy of Lee Lor
Merced, Calif.– After working in the community for fifteen years and seeing first-hand the disconnect between residents and elected officials, Lee Lor felt it was time for a change.
Her bid for Merced County District 2 Supervisor now appears to be closing in on a win, putting her on track to be the Valley’s first Hmong woman to hold office and only the second Hmong woman elected anywhere in the state.
The final votes were still being tallied but as of Nov. 18 the Merced County Elections Office reported Lor with a 500-plus lead over incumbent Hubert “Hub” Walsh for the District 2 seat. The race results should be public by Thanksgiving, but either way Lor said she is proud of the changes her campaign has already managed to accomplish.
“When I decided to run, [being the first Hmong woman] wasn’t even on my mind. But for me to find out that, yes, I am the first Hmong woman, that is shocking,” she said. “I know we’ve only been here for 40 years, but still, I think that’s a big accomplishment.”
Going against an incumbent as established in county politics as Walsh wasn’t easy but Lor said she was familiar with the community and knew residents were hungry for change.
District 2 includes large swaths of Central and North Merced as well as the University of California, Merced campus. According to the 2010 U.S. census figures, the area includes more than 52,000 residents, making it the largest of the county’s five districts.
“I got a lot of support from other people of color in the area, which I think is important,” Lor said. “Being in the community for so long, it was frustrating to speak but not be heard and to see but not be seen.”
Growing up in Merced County, Lor said she is intimately familiar with many of the struggles residents still face and has worked hard over the last 15 years to help strengthen the community.
She has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from California State University, Stanislaus, and a master’s in business administration from CSU Fresno and currently works as executive director of the Merced County Education Fund through the Merced County Office of Education.
Among her top priorities for the board of supervisors are addressing neighborhood safety concerns and instituting more resident-focused solutions.
“I want to see the residents more engaged and more involved in the safety of their neighborhoods, because they are the ones who live there. They know what is safe and what is not, so they know how best to address those issues,” Lor said.
“For law enforcement to come in and use force or to profile or automatically stereotype, I think that needs to stop. I think we need to listen to the residents and hear what they have to say,” she continued.
In practice, Lor believes this could be as simple as encouraging residents to speak with neighbors and relatives directly about noise complaints or concerns before calling police. This would keep the situation firmly in control of residents and help build trust for one another, she said.
“For example, from where I live now, if I heard my brother being too loud at his house or something, I would walk over and speak with him. It would be easier for me than for police because I know him and I understand the culture,” Lor said.
Other plans for office include developing closer ties between the Merced community and the local UC. The campus has stood on the outskirts of town for 11 years and in all that time Lor said university relations with the community are still very limited.
“I really want us to capitalize more on UC Merced and the students there and the graduates, and all the people who come here just for the UC,” she said. “The development of UC Merced and the growth of Merced is inevitable so we need to prepare our community and our people for that growth.”
Lor envisions partnering with the university for more youth development programs and economic development. Future plans are not solely focused on youth however, and she said overall Merced County should be looking for a way to help residents diversify their skillsets and invite more technology-based industries to the region.
“Maybe some of our families are in farm labor or manual labor jobs, so what if we had the opportunity to train them to do something else? Where we’re moving as a society is more technology-based,” she said. “Manual labor jobs are decreasing so we need to prepare our future for those jobs.”
“With the UC’s growth, I see that piece growing in Merced,” she continued.
That attitude of change was a cornerstone of her campaign and something Lor hopes will continue to inspire residents long after the results of the District 2 race are finalized.
“Even if the final counts come in and we don’t make it, that’s still OK. Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I’m just glad that I’ve worked in the community for 15 years and have now seen residents rise up and say this is what we want to see [in our leadership].”