Friday, January 21, 2011
CHICO — When Sor Lo came to the lectern at Tuesday night's Chico City Council meeting, for many, it was the first time they had heard of the Chico resident.
That night Councilor Jim Walker candidly admitted, "I don't know Sor Lo other than through this process."
But the council and the residents of Chico may soon get to know Lo much better, as the Hmong business owner is now one of two finalists vying for the Chico City Council seat left vacant by newly elected Butte County Supervisor Larry Wahl.
Though Lo, 45, has never campaigned for public office before, the father of eight is now contending with retired Lifetouch manager Bob Evans for a chance to sit on the city dais.
From his southeast Chico home Thursday morning, Lo, who moved to the United States in 1988 from a Thai refugee camp, discussed his desire to join the six other members of the Chico City Council.
"It's my time to serve people in any way I can," Lo said.
Up until this point, Lo has largely avoided the local political scene, admitting that he doesn't like to "play politics."
He acknowledged that although he is a registered Democrat, he has never voted in a local, state or national election — including the most recent Chico City Council election.
Lo is not a regular attendee at council meetings, has never attended a 2030 Chico General Plan meeting and his only experience in city government has been as a recent member of the newly established Chico Police Advisory Committee.
Still, Lo said he brings something to the table that no other City Councilor can boast — a connection to a population that Lo says is underrepresented in Chico government.
Throughout the course of an hour, Lo, a full-time advocate for Independent Living Services of Northern California, repeatedly stated his intention to serve as an ambassador and liaison to the Hmong community, as well as to those in Chico who live in poverty, or with disabilities.
He said by having a minority representative on the council, more Chico residents will feel comfortable sharing their opinions and concerns with the council.
"I want their voice to be heard too," Lo said.
But just what does Lo's voice represent?
As an immigrant who has no idea of his exact birthdate and who learned English while living in the refugee camp, Lo certainly demonstrates the epitome of hard work and tenacity.
He owns the Asian Market on Nord Avenue, speaks, reads and writes five languages, owns rental property in Chico and has earned an associate, bachelor's and master's degree from Butte College and Chico State University.
He was born along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and literally grew up in a jungle as his family fought for democracy.
Lo spent 13 years of his life living in a tent with his family of nine, behind a fence that bordered the Thai refugee camp. He married and had two children while living in the camp.
Lo carries shrapnel in his right leg from a communist explosive that was shot into his family's tent, likely because his father was a CIA agent who helped the United States government during the Vietnam War. That same blast killed Lo's sister.
Addressing the council Tuesday night, Lo said his past only serves as a strength for his potential future as a city councilor.
"I served the U.S. in war time and want to serve the citizens of Chico in peace time," Lo said.
With a warm smile, Lo admitted Thursday the learning curve for serving as a city councilor will certainly be steep.
He was unsure of the exact figure for the city budget deficit and though he was familiar with the city's budget crisis, he has not been as intimately involved in the discussion as other members of the public have.
Lo offered little in the way of concrete policy decisions that he would support or oppose, other than to say he would like to see businesses, nonprofits and city government work better together.
But Lo contends — and has definitely proved — that he has no aversion to hard work.
"I work seven days a week, no vacation, no time off," Lo said.
Lo said it was that dedication to his work, along with the illness and subsequent death of his father, that prevented him from running for council this past year or applying to serve on a city board or commission in late 2010.
"I just had no time," Lo said.
Now, he believes he is ready for public service. With Mayor Ann Schwab and Councilors Andy Holcombe and Scott Gruendl supporting his appointment over 19 other applicants, it seems Lo has a steady chance at that opportunity.
The council is scheduled to choose its final selection at its Feb. 1 meeting, but if it remains deadlocked between Lo and Evans as it was on Tuesday, a special election will be forced.
Lo said he would run for the position in that election and added that if the appointment is given to Evans he thinks it "would send a message to minorities that they are not welcome in this community."
When asked about any advantages he may hold over Evans, Lo responded, "He's the same people as we already have."
Still, as much as he identifies with his Hmong heritage, Lo said his ultimate goal is to give a voice to all Chicoans.
Lo said as a city councilor, he will undoubtedly bring diversity to city government, but much more than that, he said he will be a servant to the city's residents.
"I'm not just representing Hmong people," Lo said. "I'm representing the whole city."
Staff writer Toni Scott can be reached at 896-7767 or firstname.lastname@example.org.