Local Election

Elizabeth Heng: The daughter of refugees and former D.C. staffer now challenges Costa

When the recession hit and Elizabeth Heng became frustrated with the web of government regulations facing her small business franchise, she bought a one-way ticket to Washington, D.C., where she had no place to stay and knew no one in politics.

"I thought to myself, 'Who in the world is running this country?'" she said. "I didn't have a place to stay, so I stayed with an acquaintance from college and knocked on doors at Capitol Hill dropping off my resume. I thought I'd only be there for one year, but I learned it takes a long time to get legislation across the finish line."

It was both displeasure and initiative that led to Heng's congressional bid as a Republican here in her home district in California's central San Joaquin Valley. When she returned to Fresno in August 2017 after working in Washington, D.C., she saw her community dealing with the same challenges it had faced 10, even 20 years ago.

"I wasn't intending to run," she said. "I was standing on the sidelines, waiting for a young, exciting candidate. When I realized no one was coming, I decided to put my money where my mouth is."

Heng, 33, is challenging Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, for the District 16 seat he's held for 13 years. She hopes to be a "new voice for our Central Valley leadership" and will focus on strengthening the middle class.

Siv Khoeu, left, revels in the congressional run by her daughter, Elizabeth Heng, center, with her husband, and Heng's father Chieu Heng, as they walk the aisle of the family's Rasmey Market, where Elizabeth worked as a child. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

District 16 includes Fresno, Madera and Merced counties. Although about 760,000 residents live in the district, only about 260,000 are registered to vote. About 45 percent of voters registered in the district are Democrat. About 26 percent are registered as Republican, according to early April numbers from the California Secretary of State. Although Fresno County accounts for about half the registered voters in the district, about half of the registered Republicans come from Merced County.

Early life

Heng's parents, Chieu Heng, 63, and Siv Khoeu, 64, are refugees from Cambodia. They lived through the Cambodian Civil War and left afterward, meandering through Thailand to Vietnam and back to Cambodia between refugee camps. Khoeu walked barefoot 10 miles a day while pregnant, giving birth to one son on the journey and another son in a refugee camp. They arrived in the U.S. in 1983, and Elizabeth was born two years later.

Her parents have owned and operated the Rasmey Market in southeast Fresno for 25 years, and Heng worked there every day after school stocking shelves and bagging groceries. When she returned to Fresno last year, her parents still used an old cash register. So she upgraded the registers and logged all the merchandise into a digital system.

In the family's Rasmey Market hangs a banner touting Elizabeth Heng's congressional run, as her dad, Chieu Heng, center, and her aunt Kristie Cheng, left, check the shelves. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

From an early age, Heng's parents instilled in her the importance of education. Her mother wasn't allowed to attend school in Cambodia, and her father only completed one year of high school before his campus became a concentration camp, known as Security Prison 21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Heng was the valedictorian of her 2003 class at Sunnyside High in Fresno. She earned her bachelor's degree in political science and American politics from Stanford University in 2007, where she also was elected student body president.

She returned to Fresno where she and her brothers started a T-Mobile franchise. In the first three years, the franchise grew to 15 locations with 85 employees.

Political experience

Being a small business owner is what drew Heng to the Republican party. "Instead of focusing on jobs, we were focusing on government regulations," she said.

She lost trust in her representatives in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. and decided to take matters into her own hands. So she moved to Washington, D.C.

Her first job was working as a press and legislative assistant for Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton. She was quickly promoted and eventually worked as Royce's deputy campaign manager in 2012.

Heng also served as the chief of protocol for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, overseeing heads of state on the chairman's diplomacy mission trips and when they visited Capitol Hill.

There, she learned partisan politics isn't always effective.

"You have to set aside politics to get legislation across the finish line," she said, "even when you're in a place that's not always bipartisan."

Heng was appointed by the Senate Rules Committee as the director of congressional staff volunteers during President Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017. She oversaw 450 staff and coordinated the arrivals of guests every 60 seconds.

While planning for the inauguration, Heng flew to Yale every other week to fit two weeks of courses into two days to earn her master's degree in business administration.

In her family's Rasmey Market, Congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng talks about long-overdue changes in the Central Valley that she'd like to help happen. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

She returned to Fresno in August 2017 to be closer to her family. Then the government shutdown, and she felt a familiar feeling of frustration.

That's when she decided to run for Congress.

"My roots are here," she said. "This is my home, and I want to give back."

Campaign issues

Heng believes the main challenges facing District 16 are water, immigration and jobs.

"I'm sick and tired of watching the bickering and finger pointing in D.C.," she said. "We need to focus on the day-to-day issues that affect our lives.

"After a decade, it's time to pass the baton," she said about her opponent.

She calls herself a "new kind of common-sense Republican."

Heng promises to support legislation that will improve water infrastructure and storage, but acknowledges new ideas are needed.

As a daughter of refugees, Heng supports legal immigration, but she also believes in border security. "Our immigration system is broken in every way," she said. "We need to come together as a country for reform."

Congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng's family, including her mother, Siv Khoeu, left, at their Rasmey Market, wear t-shirts announcing her political campaign. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

She believes immigration, particularly the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, "impacts every facet of our community." The recent controversy surrounding DACA has divided the country in many ways, she acknowledged, but she believes it was a good way to spark a national conversation on immigration.

Heng speaks positively about Trump's tax bill, saying economically depressed areas like the Valley could benefit from the tax credits. She's watching the tech industry change the labor force and looking for opportunities for the government to get involved through deals such as public-private partnerships.

Competing against Costa

Does Heng stand a chance against her competition, Jim Costa, who is a longtime incumbent?

It depends on who you ask.

Fred Vanderhoof, chairman of the Fresno County Republican Party Central Committee, noted that Johnny Tacherra lost to Costa by just over 1 percentage point, about 1,300 votes, in 2014. The Republican party didn't have another candidate in mind to challenge Costa, and encouraged Heng to run, he said.

Costa’s district was firmly behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016. Clinton received 57 percent of the vote to Trump’s 36.

"I think this seat is winnable for a Republican — for the right one," Vanderhoof said. "I think she’s a good fit for it. …I think people are ready for a change. We're starting to see a red wave form across the country. The so-called blue wave is diminishing. We have hopes for a red wave across the country, and here in California, too."

However, Michael D. Evans, the chair of the Fresno County Democratic Party, called Heng a "mystery."

"We don’t know that much about her," Evans said. "I think the Republicans are a bit desperate to find someone viable in that district."

Evans touted Costa's voting record, particularly on healthcare, and said the veteran congressman "has his pulse on the Central Valley."

He noted that Democrat registration in the district is strong, but stopped short of saying the party is confident Costa will win.

Congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng's aunt Kristie Cheng stations herself at a voter registration table outside the family's Rasmey Market, where Heng worked as a child. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Evans also brought up Costa's healthy war chest. Costa has received nearly $900,000 in contributions, compared to Heng's approximately $118,000, Federal Election Commission reports show.

The National Republican Congressional Committee added Heng to its "Young Guns" program, where Republican candidates must meet specific goals throughout the cycle to ensure their campaigns are able to operate effectively. Heng did not advance to the second tier of the program.

Brianna Calix: 559-441-6166, @BriannaCalix