OPINION: As Democrats gain control in Gwinnett, not all of them are safe

State Rep. Pedro Marin, a Gwinnett Democrat first elected in 2002, speaks during a networking event organized as part of Georgia Gwinnett College’s HACER (Hispanic Achievers Committed to Excellence in Results) program Oct. 12, 2021. The program helps students find a professional career. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
State Rep. Pedro Marin, a Gwinnett Democrat first elected in 2002, speaks during a networking event organized as part of Georgia Gwinnett College’s HACER (Hispanic Achievers Committed to Excellence in Results) program Oct. 12, 2021. The program helps students find a professional career. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Two decades ago, Pedro Marin was the face of diversity in deeply red Gwinnett County.

In 2002, the Democratic native of Puerto Rico was elected as a state representative — one of three Latino candidates elected that year to the Georgia Legislature — and was the trickle long before the wave of electoral change came to the county.

I visited Marin’s district about a week ago as the decennial battle surrounding reapportionment raged. Gwinnett County has grown nearly 20% since 2010 and is now nearly a million residents. Meanwhile, Republican legislators are trying their best to limit the impact in that now blue county.

ExploreA GOP-led ‘whitelash’ in Gwinnett creates new political divides

We met, at Marin’s suggestion, at the Cafe Mozart Bakery on Pleasant Hill Road near I-85. “This is one of the first traditional Korean bakeries that started a trend,” he said, referring to the now booming “K town” spurred by ambitious Korean Americans grabbing hold of the American dream.

Gwinnett County is now the face of social, political and demographic change. Of the 25 state legislators representing parts of Gwinnett, just six are Republican. Recent photos of the delegation gathering at the state Capitol are reminiscent of the old Benetton ads, with all hues and shapes of humanity standing shoulder to shoulder in some common purpose.

That current makeup varies from the incoming legislative class of 2003, when Gwinnett’s entire Democratic delegation could drive down I-85 to the state Capitol in a subcompact car. Then, there were just three Democratic state reps and one state senator.

I called Marin because of a remarkable bit of map drawing that occurred in an ill-fated attempt by Gwinnett Republicans this month. It was an effort to retain a sliver of clout on the county’s commission and school board. A GOP state senator recently released a map (which had been drawn up in secret) to increase the number of Gwinnett County Commission districts from four to nine. This would have allowed Republicans to at least get a couple of their own onto a county government board that in the last year went all blue.

Members of Gwinnett County's Democratic delegation pose for a shot during a recent redistricting session. (Courtesy of Georgia House of Representatives)
Caption
Members of Gwinnett County's Democratic delegation pose for a shot during a recent redistricting session. (Courtesy of Georgia House of Representatives)

Credit: Courtesy of Gwinnett Democrats

Credit: Courtesy of Gwinnett Democrats

The GOP effort was later withdrawn after Democrats screamed bloody murder and state Republican leaders realized they had much larger matters at hand — like hanging onto power in a state where their rural base was drying up, or carving out a 9-5 split in congressional seats in a state that is pretty darn close to a 50-50 split.

ExploreGOP drops bills to change Gwinnett government until next session

Gwinnett is now so comfortable for Democrats that a redrawn 7th Congressional District based there has U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath in the neighboring 6th District looking to jump over there and challenge the 7th District’s U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux in 2022 instead of fighting to keep her current seat.

Interestingly, in the effort to redo Gwinnett’s County Commission, the GOP line drawers carved out a district that was almost exactly a quarter white, a quarter Black, a quarter Hispanic and a quarter Asian. Gwinnett County has been heralded as the sociological stew of the Southeast, and the proposed County Commission District 4 would have been the microcosm of that.

The I-85 corridor, where that district would have run, has been the gateway to change in a county that has nearly tripled in size since 1990. “Once you have a pocket of one group settle, you can have a district that caters to other members of that group,” Marin said. As white residents moved out, Korean, Vietnamese and Hispanic residents (among others) replaced them, bringing a new drive and vitality to areas that were tired and sagging.

Marin came to Gwinnett in the 1990s on a job transfer and got involved in social, economic and, ultimately, political issues. Marin saw a lane as the minority population picked up momentum, growing from just 10% in 1990 to more than 30% in 2000. (And now nearly 65%.)

Explore2020 Census: Georgia’s minority populations have surged

“I like to work with both sides. I’m not too right; I’m not too left,” he said. “I’m a moderate Democrat. I’ve been a bridge.” He said he’s brought leaders from Korean, Vietnamese and Muslim communities to the Capitol to help get them plugged in.

“I’m a well-connected person; I open doors,” he said as he drove down Pleasant Hill Road and then up Buford Highway past the changing ethnic business communities. And that change keeps a-coming. One tired Anglo strip mall became a series of Mexican businesses and has since been demolished for luxury apartments.

It’s the economic circle of life.

State Rep. Pedro Marin stands outside a mall on Pleasant Hill Road in Gwinnett County that has benefited from the influx of new residents, and dollars, coming to the county. (Photo by Bill Torpy)
Caption
State Rep. Pedro Marin stands outside a mall on Pleasant Hill Road in Gwinnett County that has benefited from the influx of new residents, and dollars, coming to the county. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

The metamorphous nature of political life has been just as interesting. For eight terms, state Sen. Republican David Shafer, who now heads the state GOP, represented a district based in Duluth. He left in 2018 and the seat was filled by a Democrat, Zahra Karinshak, whose father came from Iran. She moved on and was replaced by Michelle Au, a Chinese American.

Now, the GOP is trying to oust Au, the state’s first Asian American senator, through redistricting. She denounced the redistricting as an effort “to shore up power that is clearly fading. It looks like a balding man trying to fool the world with an embarrassing combover.” (With apologies to men with combovers, one of the few constituencies you apparently can still roast.)

But it’s not just Democrats picking off Republicans in Gwinnett, it’s also minority or more liberal Democrats replacing incumbents from their party. Longtime state Sen. Curt Thompson, who came to the Legislature with Marin after the 2002 elections, was defeated in the Democratic primary in 2018 by Sheikh Rahman, who was born in Bangladesh.

“In some aspects, the playing field has leveled; everyone has a jump ball,” said Thompson. “The historic advantages that white males had is not there.”

Thompson is a lawyer, whose practice is now mostly Korean, Vietnamese and Latino clients. He’s still an officer with the Gwinnett Democratic Party, one that has changed tremendously during his time in office. “I’m probably more progressive than Pedro but not as progressive as some of the others,” Thompson told me. “I’m not AOC.”

Marin acknowledged that he’s “old school” and that most of the members of his delegation are more liberal than he is. He prefers the term “progressive,” because the L-word is now toxic in many quarters.

He thinks he has another run left in him. And probably the only way that he would lose would be in the primary. “I will do whatever it takes,” he said. “It does not scare me.”

Curt Thompson, shown as a state senator in this 2018 file photo, lost his seat in a Democratic primary that year. (Courtesy of Sandra Parrish / WSB Radio)
Caption
Curt Thompson, shown as a state senator in this 2018 file photo, lost his seat in a Democratic primary that year. (Courtesy of Sandra Parrish / WSB Radio)

About the Author

ajc.com

Editors' Picks