What does Gwinnett election of Democratic commissioners of color mean?

Ben Ku looks over local election results with campaign volunteer Charley Levinson during a watch party Tuesday night at Crowne Sports Bar. ARLINDA SMITH BROADY / ABROADY@AJC.COM

Ben Ku looks over local election results with campaign volunteer Charley Levinson during a watch party Tuesday night at Crowne Sports Bar. ARLINDA SMITH BROADY / ABROADY@AJC.COM

Their Election Day victories mean they will be the first non-white county commission members in Gwinnett's history.

They also will be the first Democrats on the board in more than three decades.

But does the election of Ben Ku and Marlene Fosque mean something more in this county where a soon-to-be colleague referred to a civil rights icon as a racist pig?

Being just two people on a five-member board, Ku and Fosque can’t do much all by themselves — even in a place where many say the long foretold transition from red to blue has begun in earnest.

Still some are wondering if new commissioners simply improve the optics, because no longer will an all-white board preside over a majority minority community, or if their presence can bring more substantive changes.

Truth be told, those involved and political observers say, it probably means a little bit of both. If nothing else, the conversations — and its participants — could change.

“It’s not just a seat at the table,” said Stephanie Cho, the executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. “It’s what that person will bring, that new perspective that’s really, really needed at the county level.”

As recently as 1990, Gwinnett County was almost exclusively white. Today, more than 60 percent of its nearly 1 million residents are black, Latino or Asian.

Charlotte Nash, the pragmatic commission chairman, understands that Ku and Fosque will bring their own perspectives, which she welcomes.

And even though the commission will no longer be all Republican, “if we all keep the good of the county, of the community in mind, I have no doubt that we’re going to be able to find a way to work together well.”

‘Amazing things together’

Ku, 36, is the grandson of Chinese immigrants. A computer programmer and entrepreneur, he topped two-time incumbent Commissioner Lynette Howard for the right to represent District 2, which covers the deeply diverse Lilburn, Norcross and Peachtree Corners areas.

He expects there to be changes on the Commission, in both action and perspective.

Ku campaigned in part on immigration. He said he wants to tackle the controversial 287(g) program, which gives local law enforcement agencies like the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office some of the same powers as immigration officials.

Ku also wants to address the county’s non-discrimination policy, which he said does not include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Ku is gay.

“They’ve shown that they’re very open to collaboration and are being congenial,” he said of his fellow commissioners. “I don’t see why we can’t do amazing things together.”

Marlene Fosque, 55, retired from Aetna insurance company last year after more than two decades. She beat two-time incumbent Commissioner John Heard for District 4, which covers Lawrenceville and Buford.

One tenet of her campaign was increasing diversity throughout Gwinnett’s government — whether it be commission committees and advisory boards or large county departments. All but two of Gwinnett’s department heads are white.

“I know there are some challenges,” Fosque said. “But I know I’m a unifier.”

October 06, 2018 — Marlene Fosque, candidate for Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, Georgia District 4, at a Donna McLeod rally in a park in Lawrenceville. (CREDIT: Dustin Chambers for AJC)

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The most tangible influence Fosque and Ku may be able to exert early on will involve transit. The county will hold a referendum on joining MARTA for March. And while there are rules about using government resources to push for a referendum's passage (or denial), having two more strong transit advocates in positions of power could help get more voters to the polls.

Nash, the board chairman, led the drive that made transit expansion in Gwinnett possible. But the rest of the board had been less clear about their support for MARTA.

“There may be actual debates this time, if there are differences in opinion,” said Gabe Okoye, president of the Democratic Party of Gwinnett. The current board rarely splits votes or has public disagreements, even though the last two years have tested that.

In January 2017, Commissioner Tommy Hunter called U.S. Rep. John Lewis a "racist pig" on Facebook. It was in response to Lewis' public spat with then-president elect Donald Trump. Hunter also referred to Democrats as "Demonrats."

His social media activity led to months of protests at commission meetings and a public reprimand from his colleagues.

Still, Hunter says he fully expects to get along with his new Democratic counterparts.

“Of course we can,” he said. “And will.”

Ku and Fosque “know they are not working for the Democratic Party. They are working for Republicans, Democrats, independents and what have you. White, brown, yellow, whatever,” said Okoye.

Buzz Brockway, a former Republican House representative from Lawrenceville, said the commissioners don’t have to agree on everything. And he trusts Nash to steer the panel through disputes.

“Follow her lead,” Brockway said. “They don’t always have to agree, but I don’t think there’s anybody that knows Gwinnett better than Charlotte Nash.”

And her understanding can only be improved by having diverse voices, said Penny Poole, the president of the Gwinnett NAACP. And, she said, the county’s minorities will feel more like they are part of the process.

“If anything, I think this will be an opportunity” for Ku and Fosque, said Poole. “Because they only will they be making history, but then they will also have the opportunity to educate, inform and to serve.”