Democrats send the Legislature a first: A Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh

A photo from the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. From right to left: Sheikh Rahman, now a state senator-elect from Gwinnett County;  yours truly; state Democratic party chair DuBose Porter; and Stacey Abrams, now the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia. Photo courtesy of Sheikh Rahman

A photo from the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. From right to left: Sheikh Rahman, now a state senator-elect from Gwinnett County; yours truly; state Democratic party chair DuBose Porter; and Stacey Abrams, now the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia. Photo courtesy of Sheikh Rahman

The conversations that Republicans and Democrats are engaged in this summer have never been so disconnected in Georgia, on topics ranging from guns to health care. But differences are most glaring when it comes to immigration.

On the Republican side, candidates for governor have become echoes of Donald Trump. Casey Cagle has declared war on the city of Decatur, for failing to cooperate as thoroughly as the lieutenant governor would like with federal immigration authorities.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp has bragged on his massive pick-up – “Just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself.” And never mind that former GOP candidate and his “deportation bus,” who was dispatched in the May 22 primary.

So far, the most pronounced Democratic reaction has come from state Senate District 5 in Gwinnett County, a thin strip of territory with a spine formed by I-85 and a piece of Ga. 316.

Democratic voters there have decided to send the state Legislature its first Muslim member, a 57-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant and businessman named Sheikh Rahman.

In last month’s primary, Rahman defeated 14-year incumbent Sen. Curt Thompson of Tucker with an astounding 68 percent of the vote. There is no Republican candidate.

Researchers at the state Capitol tell us that, while their documentation is far from complete, they’re pretty confident that a follower of Islam has never before won a seat in the General Assembly.

So come January, morning prayers in the state Senate will be far more interesting — though Rahman doesn’t seem like the kind of fellow who will make a fuss. “I keep religion always out of politics. I never ran as a Muslim. I believe in humanity. That’s my religion,” he told me over coffee.

The meaning of Rahman’s election comes in layers. Gwinnett is the most diverse county in Georgia — 38 percent white, 27 percent black, 21 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian. And yet its government is largely a sea of pale Republican faces — with the exception of a first black judge, also elected on May 22.

White voters make up only 23 percent of Senate District 5, so the primary vote was very much a loud protest. Rahman’s campaign’s slogan: “It’s our turn now.”

“With all this stuff going on, with Donald Trump and everything else, immigrants should really have a voice,” Rahman said. He’s a retail man, both in politics and business, and carried that message from door to door to door.

“I told them you need to have a seat at the table,” he said.

But Rahman swears he didn’t ride to victory on Senate District 5’s Bangladeshi vote. They number about 300. “I counted, and I probably got half of that,” he said. Even so, his victory won him a headline in The Bangladesh Post.

Sheikh — pronounce it “shake” — Rahman’s instant political success has been decades in the making. He arrived in Charlotte, N.C., from Bangladesh in 1981 as a college student, the son of a well-connected but not-so-rich father.

When his educational funds ran out, Rahman took up washing dishes at a local steakhouse — and eventually went into management for a pair of pizza chains. He moved to Atlanta in 1986, and finally got his degree in business from the University of Georgia in 1995 — the same year he became a U.S. citizen. "I try not to give up,” Rahman said.

He’s been politically active in the state party since 2010, and was a delegate to the last two presidential nominating conventions. In 2016, Rahman beat out David Worley, a longtime Democratic activist, for a spot on the state party’s executive committee.

“I’m not really new to this,” Rahman said.

But the people he brought to his campaign are — and that’s the next layer of meaning in Rahman’s victory. On the gubernatorial level, Stacey Abrams has put a focus on bringing new blood into the Democratic circle.

Rahman was able to execute the same tactic. By necessity, his volunteers were multi-lingual — and young. “My team was 19 to 22 years old. They’d never worked in politics,” Rahman said.

His campaign manager was Khalid Kamau, a member of the South Fulton city council who had never indulged in politics until he volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016. It was Kamau who offered this sterling quote to the English-language readers of The Bangladesh Post, upon their former countryman’s victory: “This is the perfect immigrant clapback to an election season marred by very disturbing, anti-immigrant imagery.”

In a telephone interview, Kamau went into more detail. He spoke of the “demographic destiny of Gwinnett,” of course, but also said that voters they spoke with — while not hostile to Thompson, the incumbent — couldn’t point to anything he’d accomplished recently.

Kamau also dropped this tidbit: While by 2017, Thompson was no longer in the group’s good graces, in 2010 the Democrat had earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. The Rahman campaign focused on that.

You’ll remember that in the governor’s race, Abrams highlighted rival Stacey Evans’ one-time “B” rating from the NRA. The District 5 race is first evidence we’ve seen that the negative use of the gun-rights group’s seal of approval had spread to a down-ticket suburban contest.

So that’s new and different, too.

Thompson responded to his defeat with grace. He’s offered to introduce Rahman as his successor in a town hall meeting later this year. In neighboring Senate District 41, Minority Leader Steve Henson of Tucker squeaked through his Democratic primary with only 111 votes to spare. The Bangladeshi community is larger in District 41, and Rahman says he’s offered to put Henson in touch with it.

How Republicans will respond is another matter. A convention of Bangladeshi immigrants in North America is set to gather in Atlanta this July.

Rahman will be prominently featured. So will Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the future state senator from Gwinnett County said. They could have a lot to talk about.