Matt Reeves, a Republican, and Democrat Zahra Karinshak are running for a state Senate seat that covers parts of Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Republican state Sen. David Shafer vacated the seat when he launched an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor. Submitted photos.

Duluth-based state Senate seat up for grabs for first time in 16 years

When state Sen. David Shafer decided to run for lieutenant governor, he chose to vacate the seat he’s held for 16 years in what’s become a competitive district that’s vastly different from the one to which he was elected in 2002.

What once was a comfortably Republican district in Fulton and Gwinnett counties has had a shift not only in demographics, but also political leanings.

Voters in the same district that elected Shafer in 2002, a conservative Republican who never faced an opponent after being elected, voted 50.6 percent in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

That ideological and cultural shift is something that Democrat Zahra Karinshak, a whistleblower attorney and U.S. Air Force veteran who lives in Lawrenceville, said she hopes will tilt things in her favor.

“Elected officials should represent the values and cultural diversity of the region they are elected to serve,” said Karinshak, a northwest Georgia native whose father immigrated from Iran. “As the daughter of an immigrant, I understand how to bring together people of all backgrounds to move our state forward.”

She’s facing Republican Matt Reeves, a real estate attorney who lives in Duluth. Reeves, who has lived in the district for 15 years, calls its cultural diversity one of its greatest assets.

“The district is one that is how the state of Georgia and the United States of America will look a generation from now,” he said. “We’re ahead of the curve. I’m proud to have people come here from around the world.”

Most of the district lies in western Gwinnett County and includes a portion of northern Fulton County, stretching from Lawrenceville to Johns Creek.

According to the 2000 U.S. census, shortly before Shafer took office, Gwinnett’s population was two-thirds white.

Now, as the number of black, Asian-American and Hispanic people has grown, the white population is down to about 55 percent, according to 2018 census estimates.

Gwinnett’s political identity has changed, too. A county that largely supported Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election went narrowly in favor of Clinton in 2016.

That’s a shift that’s gotten the race some national attention. Karinshak, who has lived in Lawrenceville for 24 years, was on a list of five Georgia Democrats endorsed by former President Barack Obama earlier this month.

While Karinshak said she is grateful for the endorsement, it’s something she plays down.

“I am proud and thankful for all the support and endorsements I have received,” Karinshak said. “My endorsements represent a broad spectrum of our community, to include veterans, women, educators and nonpartisan endorsements.”

Karinshak is ahead in fundraising, bringing in more than $303,000 by Sept. 30. She’s pulled in donations from a handful of Democratic lawmakers and the state party.

Though Reeves is behind in the money race, reporting nearly $256,000 raised by the most recent deadline, dozens of Republican lawmakers have donated to his campaign. He also received financial support from the Georgia Republican Senatorial Committee and the Fulton County Republican Party.

Reeves touts his endorsement from outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal, saying the governor’s policies have led the state to be ranked as the best in the country for business.

“I think state government’s role is to do a few things and do them well,” Reeves said. “So I want to pick the few things state government can do some good in and get them done.”

That means continuing to lower the state income tax rate, he said. Lawmakers this year passed a bill that cuts that top state income tax rate — the rate most Georgians pay on a majority of their income — from 6 percent to 5.75 percent starting next year.

That’s something Duluth resident Krista Ganley said helped solidify her choice to support Reeves, whom she’s known for more than 10 years.

“I usually vote Republican, but I appreciate his commitment to small business and to lower taxes,” said Ganley, who owns the Payne-Corley House in downtown Duluth. “Plus, I just know his character. I know how much he cares about people and he cares about this community.”

Investment in the community is what Sharmila Nambiar said draws her to support Karinshak.

“I could tell that she was someone who was going to listen to people in her district about what was important to them,” Nambiar said.

Nambiar, a Duluth family law attorney, said she agrees with Karinshak’s desire to offer more Georgians the chance to get on Medicaid, the public health program that provides care for the poor and disabled.

Karinshak said she hopes to improve the quality of life for the people who live in her district, which she said she hopes to achieve by fully funding public education and investing in small businesses by providing incentives to those that offer jobs with decent wages.

Both candidates said they will support measures to keep crime under control.

Reeves said while he welcomes the population growth he’s seen since moving to the district 15 years ago, it has caused some unintended consequences. With growth can come crime, he said, and he said the district needs to make sure drugs, gangs and human trafficking don’t follow that growth.

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