Just weeks after being named Gwinnett County’s first female Democratic Party chair, Bianca Keaton stood on stage in a Lawrenceville gym and introduced presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren to a crowd of 1,100. But even in the national spotlight, Keaton is ready to defend Democrats’ recent gains in the county by keeping her focus local.
Keaton graduated from Spelman College and worked as a congressional aide to Rep. Cedric Richmond and Rep. Bob Brady in Washington, D.C. over the course of six years before moving to Gwinnett County in 2014. A job with Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid helped Keaton realize the impact of local government, she said.
“Within the first two weeks, I realized this is where everything is really happening,” Keaton said. “Local government became so much more important to me than what was going on in D.C.”
Keaton said she’s learned how local politics touches lives more than national policy. A personal example was her daily commute from Norcross to Marietta. On a normal day it took more than an hour each way, and public transportation was not an option.
The last straw was the aftermath of the I-85 collapse in March 2017. The increased congestion due to the closure of a major section of the highway made her daily commute two hours each way. The time that took away from her young family was distressing, Keaton said.
“I spent more time in the car than with my daughter during the youngest years of her life,” Keaton said. “It’s hard to come to grips with that as a mother, that you would spend more time in your car and at work than with your family.”
In part because of that experience, Keaton is a supporter of Gwinnett’s MARTA referendum for a transit tax, and the county Democratic party has been working with other groups on canvassing and voter outreach efforts. The party has also partnered with groups like Go Gwinnett, the Sierra Club and the New Georgia project to reach as many voters as possible.
Keaton left Cupid’s office in October 2017 and decided whatever she chose to do next would have to benefit her home of Gwinnett County. She found that opportunity in the summer of 2018, working with the Democratic Party of Georgia’s Coordinated Campaign, focusing on engaging female voters. When Democrats lost statewide races in November, Keaton was “angry” but determined to make a change.
“It was a fire in my belly that I really wanted to fix the things that I saw go wrong in Gwinnett,” Keaton said, referring to thousands of rejected absentee and provisional ballots and long lines at voting precincts.
Keaton won the chair seat in January. Now she is focusing on building a more inclusive, service-oriented party.
She’s taking over as chair at a remarkable time for the county’s political landscape. Democrats gained seats on the county commission and school board and gained a majority in the county’s legislative delegation from the 2018 election. But the county is standing out on larger stages too: Gwinnett voters went for Democrat Stacey Abrams by 14 points in the governor’s race. Newly announced presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren visited the county Feb. 16, calling Gwinnett “the future” of Georgia and the country.
“Gwinnett has to be the destination for presidential campaigns,” Keaton said. “We are one of the most diverse counties in the Southeast. It reflects our country’s future demographics and we will soon be the largest county in the state as projected by ARC and census data. Gwinnett matters.”
Keaton hopes to build the party locally by holding monthly meetings throughout Gwinnett. “It’s not just about winning and getting Democrats elected. It’s about serving people first and foremost,” Keaton said. “And if anyone has that twisted, if they’re not serving the people, then they don’t need to be part of what we’re doing.”
Part of that will be recruiting more local candidates of color. While the party made gains in 2018, before the November election, only four of 88 elected municipal officers were non-white. Candidates like Antonio Molina, a Hispanic candidate for Snellville city council, could chip away at that statistic, Keaton said.
“We’re putting a greater emphasis on municipal elections than we ever have before,” Keaton said. “By and large, there’s a lot of opportunity in Gwinnett for Gwinnett to be better, and we’ve got to do better.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.