Thirty miles on I-285 separate them, but Democrats Brenda Lopez Romero and Michael Owens are hoping they can be united 650 miles away — in Congress.
A passion for politics brought Lopez Romero and Owens together. Now it will put their relationship to the test as they compete in Democratic primaries in two separate congressional districts on opposite sides of Atlanta.
Lopez Romero, a state legislator, is one of roughly a dozen candidates who have announced or are seriously considering a bid for the open seat representing the 7th Congressional District that covers parts of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties.
Across town, Owens, the former chairman of the Cobb County Democratic Party and Lopez Romero’s boyfriend of several years, is seeking a primary rematch against U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, in the 13th District.
The two may be the country’s only couple currently running for Congress simultaneously, though there’s no national organization that tracks such statistics.
“We didn’t plan it that way,” Owens said with a laugh. “I just think we’re both very passionate and driven people who see an opportunity to go out and make a difference, and I think putting our skill sets to the best use.”
Vetting it out
Running for Congress is a stressful and time-consuming undertaking. Fundraising alone can take up the majority of a candidate’s days, not to mention canvassing events with volunteers and voter meet-and-greets that dominate most weekends.
And then there’s the snarl of traffic that clogs the couple’s roughly 30-mile commute across I-285 between Owens’ Mableton address and Lopez Romero’s home base in Norcross.
But the pair sees their relationship as a strength on the campaign trail. No one understands the demands of running for office quite like another candidate, and the two can give one another strategic and messaging advice.
Lopez Romero, a Mexico-born attorney who was the first Latina elected to the state Legislature, has emerged as a go-to on immigration and voting rights, and Owens is a cybersecurity analyst with experience working on tech and national security issues.
“I can kind of poke holes or take a contrarian approach just for the sake of it, and she can do the same with me and kind of ensure that our thoughts around these policies have been thoroughly vetted out,” Owens said. “Through both of our courses of experience we’ve been able to meld those in a way so that I just think it makes us stronger.”
Lopez Romero sees their simultaneous runs for Congress as an opportunity for growth in their relationship.
“When a significant other is not involved in the political world, it puts a strain on their relationship,” she said. “There’s a lot we can mutually share with each other” by running for office together.
Similar politics, different districts
The two met at a Democratic Party event in 2014. And although their decisions to run were made separately, the two announced their candidacies within days of each other and ultimately chose to run for similar reasons.
Both plan to focus on workforce development and economic mobility, and they’re betting their unapologetically liberal platforms will appeal to suburban voters who for years have been represented by Republicans and centrist Democrats in the U.S. House.
The majority-minority districts they’re running to represent, however, differ significantly in terms of politics and socioeconomics.
The 7th stretches through most of Gwinnett and the southern half of Forsyth, and it is home to sizable Asian and Latino populations. It’s been represented by Republicans for the past 25 years and has a median household income of nearly $75,000 a year.
The 13th spans from Powder Springs to southwest Atlanta to Stockbridge, and residents have struggled to recover from the recession. Nearly 13% of its residents live below the poverty line, and the median household income in the Democratic stronghold is roughly $55,000 a year.
Beyond that, the duo faces divergent challenges. Owens is looking to topple a well-known incumbent who’s served in elected office for more than 40 years, while Lopez Romero is trying to distinguish herself in a diverse field that includes the Democrat who narrowly lost last year.
The two are members of a tiny group in American politics: couples in which both members are candidates for federal office.
It’s even rarer to find couples — married or not — who were together while both were non-incumbent candidates. In fact, a search couldn’t find any examples.
Both Owens and Lopez Romero are well aware that the road ahead will likely involve “a lot of calendaring and a lot of patience,” as Lopez Romero put it.
“We understand that this will be a process and a time commitment,” she said.
Owens framed it in slightly different terms.
“Let’s just say we put a lot of miles on the car,” he said.
Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.