Lopez poised to make history as first Latina in the General Assembly

Brenda Lopez has volunteered for nonprofits that helped young people – including undocumented immigrants – go to college. She’s helped register Latino and Asian voters. As an attorney, she’s helped immigrants become U.S. citizens.

So when she beat a longtime party activist with big-name support in last month’s Democratic primary election, Lopez saw it as a natural progression.

“I was interested in running for office,” Lopez said. “But me running for office is an extension of that advocacy work.”

Lopez, 33, defeated Jay Trevari in the Democratic primary election for Norcross-area House District 99. Trevari had the backing of the retiring incumbent, Hugh Floyd, as well as former Gov. Roy Barnes and other Democratic luminaries. But Lopez won decisively in the state's only Latino-majority legislative district.

No Republican ran, so unless an independent candidate files this month, Lopez will face no opposition in the November general election.

A native of Mexico who came to the United States with her family at age 5, Lopez represents the new face of Gwinnett County. Already, 20 percent of county residents are Latino. By 2040, the Atlanta Regional Commission projects Latinos will be the county's largest racial or ethnic group.

In the General Assembly, Lopez hopes to expand Medicaid, shore up the HOPE Scholarship program and increase education spending generally.

But she believes her biggest impact may come by helping her constituents – many of them immigrants – navigate the complexities of state and local government to obtain better services.

“I could actually, as a state representative, have a higher impact if I worked locally,” she said.

At a recent meeting with a dozen supporters and constituents, Lopez showed how that might work.

When someone expressed concern about crime, she provided contact information for an officer in the Gwinnett County Police Department’s West Precinct. When someone complained about potholes, Lopez told her to take a picture and e-mail it to the appropriate county department. When someone said schools need translators for parent-teacher conferences, she offered her campaign e-mail list to solicit volunteers.

Lopez told constituents to go through the proper government channels – but to call her if the response was lacking.

One constituent summed up the approach this way: “If they don’t respond, we can use you as the muscle.”

Lopez knows how bewildering American government can be for immigrants.

Her father came to the United States in the 1980s to find a job, initially working construction and later becoming a chef. He brought his family – including three boys and three girls – from Mexico to DeKalb County before settling in Gwinnett.

Lopez majored in political science and sociology at Georgia State University. She earned her law degree at Syracuse University and became a U.S. citizen while attending law school.

Lopez isn’t the only Latina vying to join the General Assembly. Democrats Linda Pritchett (House District 63) and Michelle Jones (District 30) have a shot at joining Lopez next year. Unlike Lopez, both face contested elections.

Should one or more Latinas join the General Assembly next year, it won’t be easy for them, according to Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth.

Marin said he’s received plenty of hate mail since he became one of the first Latinos in the General Assembly 14 years ago [he and Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn, are currently the only Latinos at the statehouse]. Marin also has spent years fending off legislation – like measures requiring driver’s license exams to be administered in English – many Latinos see as hostile.

Lopez said she expects a certain amount of attention when she takes office. But she said she cautions her supporters not to expect too much.

“One [Latina] is not enough,” she said. “To me, it’s going to become more meaningful when we get a second and a fourth and a tenth.”