In Gwinnett and across metro Atlanta, swearing in ceremonies for local government are generally straightforward affairs: close family, a few words from the newly elected official, the end.
But Friday, with the 200-year-old county about to cross a significant threshold, the scene at the Gwinnett courthouse was like nothing before. There was a school choir and a Pakistani drummer, speeches and a dessert bar.
In back-to-back ceremonies, new Gwinnett commissioners Marlene Fosque and Ben Ku made history and made it in style. The pair became the first people of color ever to serve on the commission.
Fosque is the first African-American commissioner. Ku is the first Asian-American and the first openly gay person to serve on the five-member board.
A crowd came for both their events as the pair became the first Democratic members of the Gwinnett County commission in more than three decades.
Fosque’s ceremony offered a full program, including a soloist who performed a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
A school choir from her district sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“It’s a brand new day,” Fosque said in an emotional speech. “Change is here.”
Ku’s gathering was a little simpler, but equally momentous: a funny biographical slide show, a selfie with the judge swearing him in and a speech by former lieutenant governor candidate Sarah Riggs Amico.
“I want to thank each and every supporter, volunteer and of course my family, for making history this year,” Ku said.
Fosque and Ku both beat out two-term Republican incumbents in November’s elections. The political newcomers rode a long-anticipated blue wave that finally took hold in Gwinnett, which has been a Republican stronghold for decades but has slowly shifted left as it’s grown and diversified.
Gwinnett voters overwhelmingly selected Democrat Stacey Abrams over Gov.-elect Brian Kemp in November, and the county’s state legislative delegation flipped to a Democratic majority.
Fosque and Ku will not be a majority on Gwinnett’s commission but their addition will change the dynamics. It has the potential to regularly put the commission’s pragmatic Republican chairman, Charlotte Nash, in the swing vote position.
Fosque and Ku— who will represent districts 4 and 2, respectively — will now serve on a board that includes District 3 Commissioner Tommy Hunter, who infamously called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” and referred to Democrats as “Demonrats.”
The fallout and national attention from that Jan. 2017 incident re-sparked the debate about the dearth of diversity in the leadership in Gwinnett, whose 900,000-plus residents have been a majority non-white for nearly a decade.
The new commissioners on Friday seemed well aware of the moment. But Ku, a 36-year-old computer programmer who is openly gay, said their “diversity of experience and thought” is just as vital.
“I think that’s what’s important,” Ku said, “is making sure that everybody’s views are being heard fairly.”
Fosque, 55 and retired from the insurance industry, expressed similar sentiments.
“We are better,” she said, “when we work together.”
The duo’s first meeting as commissioners will be on Jan. 3, and they’ll have at least one big vote off the bat. The commission will consider and vote on the county’s 2019 budget at their first meeting.