Diverse candidate field vies to fill Stacey Abrams’ vacant House seat

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Diverse candidate field vies to fill Stacey Abrams’ vacant House seat

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Left to right: Monique Keane, Sachin Varghese, Bee Nguyen and David Abbott, are running as Democrats for the vacant House District 89 seat in the Georgia General Assembly. (Courtesy photos)

Four first-time candidates hope to fill the shoes of former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, who resigned in August to run for governor.

One of the state’s best known Democrats, Abrams was the first woman to lead either party in the Legislature and the first African-American to hold a House leadership position. She became minority leader in 2010.

The candidates hoping to replace her could be the most racially diverse slate of legislative hopefuls in Georgia history.

All Democrats, they area white man, an African-American woman, an Indian-American man and a Vietnamese-American woman.

Though the demographics have shifted in recent years, African-Americans remain a majority in the 89th district that’s home to city neighborhoods including East Atlanta, Gresham Park and Cedar Grove.

Bee Nguyen said the slate of candidates is more diverse than the district. For example, the state has gained a lot of Hispanic and Asian voters, but very few live in the 89th district.

“In terms of the candidate makeup, I don’t know that that is exactly a reflection of what the district actually looks like,” said Nguyen, who is Vietnamese-American. “We don’t really have many Asian people in the district.”

If Nguyen won she would be the first Asian-American Democratic woman to hold state office and the fourth Asian-American in the state’s history. If Sachin Varghese wins, he would be Georgia’s first Indian-American lawmaker.

About 45 residents gathered last week in East Atlanta to discuss the importance of smart development and quality education. Issues like those have business owner Annie Price conflicted on who is best suited to fill the Abrams seat.

“I’m having trouble deciding because most of the candidates, I like,” she said.

All four candidates cite a desire to rectify a specific problem:

David Abbott, a Virginia native who moved to Atlanta in 2003, pointed to what he called a broken property tax system skewed to the top 1 percent.

“If financial property were taxed (correctly), the tax rate on houses and cars could be cut by at least half,” said Abbot, who owns a private legal practice. “This kind of reform would help the vast majority of Georgia families.”

Monique Keane, an attorney from California who has been in Atlanta since 2004, said after years working as a defense attorney trying to change what she called a broken justice system one client at a time, she realized she needed to be in a place to change policy.

“The issues were bigger than what you could change from inside the courtroom,” she said. “You have to work within the framework, but the framework is broken.”

Nguyen, an Augusta native who moved to the Atlanta area in 1999, said her work with her nonprofit after-school program has helped focus her desire to reduce economic disparity.

“The reason schools suffer is because the kids are suffering economically,” she said. “When we talk about education we sometimes think about it too narrowly … So for me it’s, what pieces of policy can we pass to stabilize families economically so that students can perform better in school?”

Varghese, who has a child in first grade and another in preschool, said the state should spend more on K-12 education.

“The single most important thing we can do as a state is improve our public education system,” he said. “If you look at the long-term strength of our state, we have to have a strong public education system.”

All four were cautious when rating the performance of their predecessor.

“Stacey has been a good representative and strong voice at the Capitol,” said Varghese. “I’m very focused on how I’ll represent the district, with a strong focus on being available and accessible to constituents.”

Abbott, however, had strong words for his party.

“The Democratic establishment is broken and while I oppose (President Donald) Trump, I hold the Democratic establishment in the same regard that Trump holds the Republican establishment,” he said.

Candidates have only had to file one campaign contribution report so far in the special election sparked by Abrams’ resignation.

As of June 30, Varghese’s had the strongest fundraising, taking in nearly $125,000. Nguyen was a distant second with almost $55,000, while Keane had raised about $10,000. Abbott didn’t file a report because he was not running until after June 30.

Based on the disclosures, Varghese appears the clear choice of the party establishment, securing donations from some of the state’s most recognizable Democrats, including former Gov. Roy Barnes and 2014 gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter.

The other candidates said they are focused on reaching voters and less concerned with high-profile endorsements and raising tons of money.

Price, an East Atlanta veterinarian, said she’s narrowed her likely vote down to Nguyen and Varghese as she heads to the polls Nov. 7.

“It’s a good problem to have,” she said, “where if either one of them wins you’re like, ‘OK.’ ”

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