Does ‘new Gwinnett’ start turning purple this year?


Gwinnett’s changing colors

Percentage of registered voters by race:

White: 54%

Black: 25%

Asian: 2%

Hispanic: 5%

Percent change since 2006 by race:

White: -4.60%

Black: +70%

Asian: +50.42%

Hispanic: +117.74%

Source: Georgia Secretary of State’s Office

Ongoing coverage

It’s a big year for politics in Georgia, with a governor up for re-election and an open U.S. Senate seat. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following it every step of the way.

Ongoing coverage

It’s a big year for politics in Georgia, with a governor up for re-election and an open U.S. Senate seat. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is following it every step of the way.

Gwinnett County, home to exclusive country clubs and immigrant enclaves, is the best example of Georgia’s shifting demographics.

Already a majority-minority county, where whites make up less than 50 percent of the population, the “new Gwinnett” has already had an impact on business development, social services and education. But it will also show itself in politics — possibly sooner rather than later.

When state Rep. Tom Rice of Norcross ran for re-election in 2004, his district was 8 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. The Republican is again on the ballot, but his district has changed dramatically: Minorities now make up more than 30 percent of House District 95’s registered voters.

Rice’s opponent, Democrat Amreeta Regmi, has proved to be a formidable fundraiser. A native of Nepal, she’s tapped into Nepalese networks across the country and counts a number of Republicans as key supporters.

Whether Regmi is successful in November’s election will foretell how quickly Gwinnett changes.

“In the past, many times the Democrats just put up a name and nobody knows who they are and they didn’t raise 5 cents and they didn’t go anywhere,” Gwinnett Republican Gay Shook said. Shook is friends with Regmi and is an enthusiastic supporter of the first-time candidate. “This time, she’s a formidable opponent.”

Shook said Gwinnett’s evolution into a rainbow of colors and nationalities is also at work.

In 1990, 5 percent of Gwinnett’s residents were black, 2 percent were Hispanic and nearly 3 percent were Asian. A census estimate in 2013 shows the county’s population is 26 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian. The county’s population also grew by about 500,000 people in that time period.

“Look at who’s going to school, you’ll see the face of the new Gwinnett,” Shook said. “Go look and see who’s staffing our hospitals, go look and see who’s working in our retail malls. It’s all part of it.”

Rice is well aware of his challenge.

“Everybody is out raising money,” he said. “(Regmi’s) done a good job of that. From a standpoint of a candidate, she is one of the best ones the Democratic Party has brought up for a while.”

Regmi has raised nearly $27,000 as of June 30, the end of the most recent reporting period, and had nearly $18,000 in cash on hand July 1. Rice, meanwhile, has raised more than $80,000 and has nearly $70,000 in cash on hand. Much of his money has come from political action committees and special interest groups with business before the Legislature.

Still, he notes that while his district is changing, it’s not changing as quickly as some. White voters, who are more likely to vote Republican, still make up 70 percent of Rice’s district, which delivered Republican Mitt Romney 56 percent of their votes in 2012, compared with 42 percent for President Barack Obama. Overall, 55 percent of Gwinnett voters went for Romney; 45 percent for Obama.

Many political analysts expect the gap between Republican and Democratic votes to narrow over the next decade or more. The two parties, of course, disagree on how quickly the state moves from red to, at least, purple. But what is clear is that it’s occurring in Gwinnett more rapidly than the state as a whole.

“The world’s come to Gwinnett County,” Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. “We’re still figuring out how to deal with it the best way we can.”

The county plans to hire a community outreach coordinator, Nash said, and aims to take a more active approach to its different populations. Already, some departments have sought out language specialists to better reach specific groups.

Hispanic residents often don’t report crimes, Gwinnett police Cpl. Jake Smith said, so Spanish-speaking officers are targeting areas with large Hispanic populations. They let them know that police officers want to talk to victims and witnesses, and don’t care about their immigration status.

“Our fear is serious crimes are going unreported because of a fear of police,” Smith said. “We’re working against a lifetime of perception.”

As much as they may try to reach out, people often don’t have a deep understanding of a culture they aren’t part of, said Chaiwon Kim, the CEO of the Center for Pan Asian Community Services.

“We’re not counted, we’re not seen, our voice doesn’t reach to the top,” she said. “You really have to come and live within the culture to understand it.”

The school and court systems do a good job in Gwinnett, Kim said. But there’s some cultural misunderstanding with police.

“We get misunderstood by the system,” she said.

But while the county’s population is now more than 50 percent minority, whites remain the majority bloc, and minority groups aren’t registering to vote as quickly. Of the more than 380,000 voters registered in Gwinnett as of Nov. 26, 54 percent are white, 25 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic, while Asians make up about 2 percent of the electorate.

Although Regmi is making a strong bid for Rice’s seat, the “face of the new Gwinnett” seems more likely to cause trouble for other Republicans in the county. In District 101, state Rep. Valerie Clark, R-Lawrenceville, has seen her district grow to near racial parity. Of the more than 4,300 registered voters in her district, 2,080 are nonwhite.

The gap is even narrower in District 105. There, state Rep. Joyce Chandler, R-Grayson, has about 3,600 registered voters, only 1,882 of whom are white.

In House District 96, state Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, faces the opposite problem. His district was redrawn in 2012 to include more white voters.

The difference, however, is that neither Marin nor Clark has a general election opponent.

Chandler does have a challenger. Democrat Renita Hamilton has run previously for the state House and the Lawrenceville City Council.

But Hamilton has not proved to be as adept at fundraising, having brought in just $7,000 through June 30. Chandler, first elected in 2012, has raised more than $16,000 and had about $11,000 in cash on hand as of June 30.

Chandler said her district was already about 50 percent minority when she won in 2012. Her message then is the same as her message now, she said.

“I want to be everybody’s representative, not just Republican voters,” Chandler said. “I’m not interested in voting just straight down party lines.”

Hamilton did not return phone calls seeking comment.

State Rep. B.J. Pak, R-Lilburn, said it’s no secret that Gwinnett is changing, but he believes equating increased minority population with more votes for Democrats paints minorities as monolithic and presumes Republicans can’t attract their votes.

“That’s a trap Democrats fall into,” said Pak, who is Asian. “They’re different groups. Stereotyping them as this group is this, this group is that, it does a disservice. It’s incorrect politics.”