Gwinnett has record slate of immigrant candidates on Tuesday ballot

Gwinnett County Biard of Education Chair Louise Radloff (center) was the first immigrant elected to Gwinnett County government in the modern political era. Tuesday, five other immigrants are also on the ballot. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com AJC FILE PHOTO
Gwinnett County Biard of Education Chair Louise Radloff (center) was the first immigrant elected to Gwinnett County government in the modern political era. Tuesday, five other immigrants are also on the ballot. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com AJC FILE PHOTO

Louise Radloff grew up in Canada, and the longtime member of the Gwinnett County Board of Education has long ceased to think of herself as an immigrant. But she appears to have the distinction of being the first naturalized citizen to be elected at the county level in Gwinnett, at least in the modern political era.

Since that first election in 1972, immigrants from many more places than suburban Toronto have made Gwinnett County home, and a number have been elected at the state level. But this year, voters have the opportunity to put immigrants in one more school board seat and two commission seats — a first for the county in which Census data shows more than a quarter of residents were born somewhere other than the United States.

Including Radloff, six candidates for local races are foreign-born. Three of them are running for chairman of the Gwinnett County commission.

Charlotte Nash, the outgoing chairman, said it was heartening to see more immigrants running for office.

“When you put down roots, you begin to have more interest in what the direction is,” she said.

The candidates have all been in Gwinnett — and elsewhere in the U.S. — for many years. Desmond Nembhard, a Democrat who is running to replace Nash, left Jamaica for New Jersey when he was 18. He moved to Gwinnett on a whim to open a restaurant, in 2008, and has since made it home.

“Just the fact that I am able to be in this race, from where I’m coming from, I can’t explain the proudness that I felt,” Nembhard said.

Nembhard thinks having more immigrants in local government can "elevate it from within." While Gwinnett's leadership has largely been white and Republican, demographic shifts started to play out at the ballot box in 2018. Now, white residents make up just over half of the population; three nonwhite representatives sit on the board of commissioners and board of education, both boards that had long been monochromatic.

"This is 2020, Gwinnett is new, it's a different situation," Nembhard said.

Andy Morgan, another Democratic candidate for chairman, was also born in Jamaica. Morgan, a lawyer, immigrated to the U.S. at four years old and grew up in New York. He moved to Georgia in 2007.

Morgan said he thinks the diverse slate of candidates represents the ways in which the county has changed.

“Whether Gwinnett is ready to embrace something that’s different, it’s hard to say,” he said. “It is a hope, though.”

He said if residents see more faces in leadership that look like theirs, more people will feel included. Nicole Love Hendrickson, one of the five Democrats running for chairman, echoed that sentiment. She was the county's community outreach coordinator before stepping down to run and said a diversity of experiences helps ensure people from all walks of life are represented.

“People need to see they have a voice at the table championing them, advocating for their needs and experiences,” she said. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

George Awuku, a Republican candidate for chairman who moved to the U.S. from Ghana in 2007 after 10 years in the U.K., said if voters elect a leader who immigrated to the county, it would be historic. Regardless of whether he is the victor, he hopes his presence in the race will encourage others.

“Even if I were not to win, I’m hoping other immigrants step up to the challenge of serving,” the civil engineer said. “It’s a way to say, ‘Thank you so much America for what you’ve done for me.’”

If immigrant candidates were to be among those elected to office in November, it would confer "symbolic legitimacy" on the county government, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. Representation in local government has lagged the county's diversity, but as more residents become naturalized citizens, Gillespie said the slate of candidates shows the extent to which they have become invested in Gwinnett.

“Systems are legitimate when people see themselves reflected in positions of power,” she said.

And while the immigration status of voters isn’t tracked, Gillespie said immigrants’ presence on the ballot could encourage more people to vote and develop the habit of voting, even if they aren’t the ones who move forward in Tuesday’s primary.

District 1 school board candidate Segun Adeyina, a Democrat who left Nigeria to go to college in Ohio, said he has always believed it's important to participate in the community he lives in.

“You’re winning by being involved no matter what the outcome is,” he said. “You win by participating.”

Jacqueline Tseng, a Republican candidate for the District 1 commission seat, is running to be a role model for the American Dream. Tseng, who came to Georgia from Cambodia as a child after fleeing that country and living in a refugee camp in Thailand, said she wants to show what can be achieved with hard work.

“I can’t tell you enough how much I love and appreciate this country and what it’s done for me,” Tseng said. “I want to give back.”

Seeing immigrants running for office sends a positive message regardless of where they're from, said Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

"It demonstrates diversity in Gwinnett County is here to stay," he said. "It's a beautiful thing to see immigrants wanting to step forward and serve their new country in the most public-facing service one can do."