Big freshman class enters Georgia General Assembly

After November’s elections, the Georgia General Assembly will look quite different when the 2019 legislative session begins Monday.

Nearly one in six seats have changed hands since last year. Some lawmakers lost re-election, others ran for higher office and several retired.

There will be a total of 42 freshmen in the 236-seat Georgia House and Senate (two seats won’t be filled until after special elections next month).

Democrats benefited from the turnover, picking up 13 seats, mostly in north metro Atlanta. Republicans now hold a 58 percent majority at the Capitol after they controlled about two-thirds of legislative seats during the past two years.

Here’s a look at five newly elected legislators to watch this year:

Viola Davis

State Rep. Viola Davis
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

  • Chamber: House
  • Party: Democratic
  • Who she is: Davis was a longtime DeKalb County community activist before she ran for office. As the leader of a group she founded, Unhappy Taxpayer and Voter, Davis frequently criticized the county government, alleging it was wasting public money. Davis defeated incumbent Democrat Rep. Earnest “Coach” Williams in the primary. No Republican ran against her in the general election.
  • Why she’s worth watching: After criticizing public officials for years, Davis is now one of them. She’ll have to manage a transition from government watchdog to elected leader. Davis has said she’ll be an outspoken voice for taxpayers at the Capitol.

Ginny Ehrhart

State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

  • Chamber: House
  • Party: Republican
  • Who she is: Ehrhart takes over the Powder Springs seat in the state House that had been represented by her husband, Earl Ehrhart, since 1989. When Earl Ehrhart decided not to seek re-election, Ginny Ehrhart ran to replace him. She’s a chef and author of two cookbooks, and she hosts a weekly lifestyle radio show.
  • Why she’s worth watching: Ehrhart will likely carry on her husband’s conservative legacy, emphasizing her support for law enforcement, business growth, religious freedom and gun rights. As a new Republican in metro Atlanta, she defied the trend of Democrats flipping several suburban seats when she defeated Jen Slipakoff in November.

Houston Gaines

State Rep. Houston Gaines
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

  • Chamber: House
  • Party: Republican
  • Who he is: Gaines, who works in financial services, retook an Athens-area seat that had flipped to Democrats during a special election in 2017. Gaines originally lost to Deborah Gonzalez in that special election but defeated her in November. Gaines said during his campaign that he more closely reflects the conservative values of the district.
  • Why he’s worth watching: Gaines is only 23 years old, but he is already building up political experience. Gaines was student government president at the University of Georgia before running for the state House in 2017 and 2018.

Zahra Karinshak

State Sen. Zahra Karinshak
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

  • Chamber: Senate
  • Party: Democratic
  • Who she is: Karinshak, an attorney, won a race for a Duluth seat previously held by Republican Sen. David Shafer, who lost his bid for lieutenant governor to Geoff Duncan in the primary runoff. Karinshak served as executive counsel to Gov. Roy Barnes before becoming a federal prosecutor. She’s now in private practice, focusing on whistleblower cases, white-collar criminal defense and corporate internal investigations.
  • Why she’s worth watching: Karinshak brings extensive governmental experience to the state Senate, having worked as a lawyer and an Air Force intelligence officer during the Gulf War. By winning election, she and other Democrats gained a majority of seats from Gwinnett County. Democrats also took control over legislative delegations from Cobb and Fulton counties.

Sheikh Rahman

State Sen. Sheikh Rahman
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

  • Chamber: Senate
  • Party: Democratic
  • Who he is: Rahman is the first Muslim member of the Georgia General Assembly. He’s a businessman and immigrant from Bangladesh who defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Curt Thompson of Tucker in the May primary. No Republican ran for the seat in November’s general election. He said he’s focused on health care and transportation.
  • Why he’s worth watching: Rahman will bring greater religious diversity to the state Senate, where Christian legislators often support bills seeking greater protections for religious rights. But Rahman said he hopes to work with both Democrats and Republicans as a voice for immigrants at the Capitol.

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