Will race or party affiliation guide Gwinnett commission voters?

Ben Ku and Lynette Howard. (Special photos)

Ben Ku and Lynette Howard. (Special photos)

Lynette Howard is not sure she considers herself a “person of color.”

But she knows who her grandmother and mother were, knows that they escaped Cuba on a dramatic plane ride when the latter was a teenager. She knows that she’s proud of them; that she loves to cook (and eat) Cuban food; and that, much to her own kids’ chagrin, she has the old-fashioned values of a Cuban parent.

Howard also knows that it doesn't feel quite right when folks write or talk about Gwinnett County never having had a "non-white" commissioner. The two-term Republican incumbent said as much after recent stories touching on the Chinese heritage of her November opponent — Democrat Ben Ku — were published.

“If [voters] didn’t know that I’m Cuban and it’s exciting for them that I am, then that’s a wonderful thing,” said Howard, a chemist who grew up in Florida and has lived in Gwinnett since 1988. “To say that nobody who understands what an immigrant will go through to come to the United States has ever been on the commission, that’s just not true.”

Howard and Ku both know that in a place like Gwinnett County, one of the most diverse communities in the Southeast, such distinctions can make a difference — every day and, perhaps, come election time.

Ku, who questioned the election-season timing of Howard publicly asserting her heritage, considers himself multiracial. His paternal grandparents emigrated from China, and his mother is white. He's also openly gay.

“I think the voters want somebody who will represent them,” Ku said. “No matter what form that takes.”

Surely they do, in one way or another. But does race typically play a significant factor? Are minorities — of which there are plenty in Gwinnett and in District 2, which stretches from Peachtree Corners through Norcross and Lilburn — more likely to vote for minorities?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer tends to be a bit complicated. And it depends on who you ask.

Politics or racial solidarity?

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said that race can sometimes make a difference in elections with very tight margins, and that the potential for “historic firsts” can also be a motivating factor.

But “blind racial solidarity” isn’t generally how it works, she said — a person’s partisan leanings are usually the stronger force. If a candidate isn’t viewed as viable or doesn’t align with political beliefs, their race means little.

Minorities in general tend to vote Democratic, Gillespie said.

“The fact that Gwinnett’s demographics have shifted [in recent years] to being majority-minority, this is the reason why all of a sudden it’s competitive from a partisan standpoint,” Gillespie said of the county, which has long been a Republican stronghold.

Gwinnett County voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016's presidential election, the first time it had gone for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976. A handful of new Democrats have made it to the state legislature from Gwinnett in recent years, and Ronda Colvin-Leary just became the first black judge to ever be elected in Gwinnett.

But in a county that’s now about 37 percent white, some believe there should already be more minority representation.

A group led by the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and the Georgia NAACP filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta in 2016. It argues that Gwinnett's commission and school board districts are drawn to dilute the ability of minority voters to select "the candidates of their choice" — and it argues that the county's black, Latino and Asian residents vote similarly and should be treated as a single protected group under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Richard Engstrom is a research fellow and political scientist at Duke University in North Carolina, and is being compensated at $400 an hour for his role in the lawsuit. He has provided several expert reports on behalf of the plaintiffs.

In his original report, Engstrom analyzed 11 “racially or ethnically contested” Gwinnett commission or school board elections that have been held since 2004. He claims the analysis indeed found that black, Latino and Asian voters “are each politically cohesive voting groups that together constitute a politically cohesive minority coalition.”

John R. Alford, a political science professor at Rice University in Texas and another $400-an-hour expert, has also submitted multiple reports as part of the lawsuit — his on behalf of Gwinnett County and the other defendants. Most have been in direct response to Engstrom’s work.

Alford has argued, essentially, that Engstrom’s analysis merely proves that minority voters lean Democratic.

“In general elections Black voters typically vote cohesively for the Democratic candidate, whether that candidate is white or minority, and white voters typically vote cohesively for the Republican candidate, whether that candidate is white or minority,” Alford wrote in a November filing in the case.

He pointed to a Gwinnett school board contest that was analyzed, one in which a black Republican candidate lost to a white Democrat. He called those results and the others “a function of partisan polarization and not racial polarization.”

Gillespie, the Emory political scientist, said the biggest factor may be if minority groups are more motivated to vote — or are contacted more by campaigns — when minority candidate are running.

“The larger question becomes are these groups being mobilized to vote in local elections… “It’s a question of will they vote,” Gillespie said. “And if you don’t get asked to vote, your probability of turning out to vote is lower.”

Checking a box

Whether or not Howard should be considered a “non-white” commissioner is one question. Whether or not a more public embrace of her heritage could help her win come November is another.

“It bothers me that people don’t understand that I’m Cuban,” Howard said. “But at the same time, I want to be known as the person that best represents my community, that has worked hard in my community.”

She said that voters should “be real careful in voting people in just so it checks a box.”

Ku, her opponent, agreed that it should be “a matter of having people that are sensitive to different cultures.” And that substance counts too.

He pointed out that Howard has, along with her commission colleagues, twice voted to extend the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office's 287(g) agreement with federal immigration officials, a controversial practice that gives local law enforcement some of the powers of immigration officials. Gwinnett has become one of the most prolific communities in the nation in terms of arresting and placing holds for Immigration and Customs Enforcement on people believed to be in the country illegally.

Recent media reports based on ICE data suggested the county accounted for as many as one-fifth of all 287(g) "encounters" in the United States.

“Ultimately I’m curious,” Ku said. “If this is important to her, what has she done in her tenure of eight years to help immigrants?”

In other Gwinnett news:

Huge distribution facility pitched for Gwinnett site The proposed facility near Stone Mountain would be 2.5 million square feet It could employ as many as 1,800 people Documents filed with the state of Georgia suggest the facility would be worth $200 million The company behind the proposal is unknown However, media reports have suggested Amazon is searching for a site in the Atlanta area The proposal is on the agenda for the planning commission’s August meeting