Best-dressed* Georgia lawmakers of 2021

This year's best-dressed* legislators include: (top row, left to right) Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta; Rep. Donna McLeod, D-Lawrenceville; Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming; Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome; Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson; (bottom row, left to right) Rep. Matthew Gambill, R-Cartersville; Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven; Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Ellenwood; Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta; and Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough. Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
This year's best-dressed* legislators include: (top row, left to right) Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta; Rep. Donna McLeod, D-Lawrenceville; Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming; Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome; Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson; (bottom row, left to right) Rep. Matthew Gambill, R-Cartersville; Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven; Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Ellenwood; Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta; and Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough. Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Before the emails begin: Yes, there are numerous more important things that have occurred this year.

However, in between dealing with bills addressing heavy issues — such as elections, hospital visitations during emergencies and whether citizens should be able to arrest fellow citizens — I welcomed an opportunity to bring some levity to the 40 grueling days of the legislative session.

I’m not alone. In between discussing and debating the year’s weightier issues, legislators, staffers and lobbyists alike have asked me if and when I was bringing back the list of best-dressed* lawmakers I began two years ago.

Throughout the legislative session, I’ve asked for nominations, been tracked down by eager lawmakers and chatted with folks in the halls about who they believe should be on the list.

This is my second time compiling this list — I thought it would have been in poor taste last year considering the year that 2020 was — so if your favorite stylish lawmaker isn’t mentioned, it’s quite possible he or she was recognized in 2019. I made the executive decision that there would be no repeat appearances. (Sadly, the 2019 honorees didn’t get the best-dressed photo shoot that this year’s picks received.)

Also, my standing disclaimers: Everything I know about fashion I learned from “Project Runway” and “America’s Next Top Model.” I am by no means an expert.

If you know me, you know that on any given day you can catch me looking like a disheveled mess.

As in 2019, most of the lawmakers I spoke with said they felt it was important to present themselves to the world in the best possible light. Many said while they felt one’s appearance shouldn’t matter, there are many who will judge a person at first glance.

For the men on the list, it’s difficult to get too creative. Most wear dark tailored suits but play around with patterned ties, pocket squares and socks. The women have a little more leeway to have fun, but it usually came down to tailoring and color to make the list.

And with that, I give you the AJC.com picks for the 2021 best-dressed* state lawmakers, in alphabetical order:

03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Katie Dempsey (R-Rome) sits for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Katie Dempsey (R-Rome) sits for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome

Dempsey said lately she’s taken fashion inspiration from the period clothing on “Genius: Aretha” airing on National Geographic, saying the early episodes of the show chronicling singer Aretha Franklin’s life are from the years when she was growing up. But her mother was her first fashion icon.

“She always looked so nice. I loved playing in her closet growing up — putting on her high heels and walking around, and sometimes when she’d be out of town, I might even try to wear one of her dresses, even if they didn’t fit quite well,” she said. “I think when you feel like you look your best, you’re also able to work your best.”

03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Sen. Greg Dolezal (R-Cumming) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Sen. Greg Dolezal (R-Cumming) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming

Dolezal stopped short of saying that coming to the Capitol every day was like playing dress-up, but as the owner of a technology company, jeans and T-shirts are his go-to attire. Dolezal said he thinks his interest in fashion started as a child growing up in Chicago when everyone coveted Air Jordans.

“I’d save up my allowance money to get the Air Jordans. So yeah, I guess all we’re doing now is a modern-day version of what we’re all doing in elementary school,” he said. “You work with what you’ve got and try to make it fit right and try to make it look as good as you can. And then you go about your work.”

Rep. Matthew Gambill, R-Cartersville, said his grandfather taught him the importance of dressing well. “When I speak to students, I always encourage them that it’s not necessarily how much money you spend on clothes — you can buy very inexpensive clothes, you can go to Goodwill, I’ve bought dress shirts at Goodwill — but how you put yourself together says a lot about, you,” he said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Rep. Matthew Gambill, R-Cartersville, said his grandfather taught him the importance of dressing well. “When I speak to students, I always encourage them that it’s not necessarily how much money you spend on clothes — you can buy very inexpensive clothes, you can go to Goodwill, I’ve bought dress shirts at Goodwill — but how you put yourself together says a lot about, you,” he said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Rep. Matthew Gambill, R-Cartersville

Gambill said his sense of style started with his grandfather — a cement business owner and the father of former Gov. Joe Frank Harris — who grew up so poor that he instilled in his family the importance of dressing well even if there isn’t money to spend on expensive clothes.

“When I speak to students, I always encourage them that it’s not necessarily how much money you spend on clothes — you can buy very inexpensive clothes, you can go to Goodwill, I’ve bought dress shirts at Goodwill — but how you put yourself together says a lot about, you,” the insurance executive said.

03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Sen. Sonya Halpern (D-Atlanta) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Sen. Sonya Halpern (D-Atlanta) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta

Halpern describes her style as “classic with a little bit of downtown,” much like her fashion inspiration Jada Pinkett Smith. A marketing executive and freshman lawmaker, Halpern also credits her aunt for guiding her fashion sense, whom she referred to as “super foxy.”

“It’s superfun to see what’s in your closet and figure out how to mix and match and create new outfits,” she said. “I have loved session because for the past year we’ve all been sitting in the house, not really being able to get dressed. There are all these clothes in my closet that I have not worn, so I’ve had a lot of fun actually having to come here and actually get dressed.”

Sen. Emmanuel Jones, D-Decatur, ties his attention to appearance to his military training, going back to JROTC. “I have an overriding philosophy that I adopted in the military where you have to be prepared for anything," said Jones, now a car dealer. "So that’s the kind of philosophy I have in the General Assembly — you never know when someone’s going to stick a microphone in your face or take your picture.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Sen. Emmanuel Jones, D-Decatur, ties his attention to appearance to his military training, going back to JROTC. “I have an overriding philosophy that I adopted in the military where you have to be prepared for anything," said Jones, now a car dealer. "So that’s the kind of philosophy I have in the General Assembly — you never know when someone’s going to stick a microphone in your face or take your picture.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur

Jones, a U.S. Army veteran, said his attention to appearance came from his military training that began with junior ROTC in high school and has carried over into his career as the owner of a car dealership where his employees have a detailed dress code. Now, Jones works directly with a clothier (Reggie Jaye, who stopped by during Jones’ photo shoot) to choose fabrics and patterns that appeal to him when putting together his wardrobe.

“Being in politics, I think image is important,” he said. “I have an overriding philosophy that I adopted in the military where you have to be prepared for anything. So that’s the kind of philosophy I have in the General Assembly — you never know when someone’s going to stick a microphone in your face or take your picture.”

03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Donna McLeod (D-Lawrenceville) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Donna McLeod (D-Lawrenceville) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Rep. Donna McLeod, D-Lawrenceville

McLeod, a native of Jamaica, said her heritage has helped shaped her fashion sense, leaning toward bold, bright colors. Selecting certain outfits also helps arm her for a day of working in the Legislature, where, as a Democrat, the days are often long and difficult in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, she said.

“Being at the Capitol sometimes can be so frustrating that being dressed (up) makes me feel like I’m empowered and can come down here and I’m doing the work for the people,” the medical device consultant said.

03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Sen. Nikki Merritt (D-Grayson) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Sen. Nikki Merritt (D-Grayson) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson

Merritt said she approaches her wardrobe by building on a “minimalist base” and adding something fun like a pop of color in a blazer or accessory. A retired telecommunications representative, she said she learned early on that, while she doesn’t break the bank on footwear, she was OK spending money on shoes that are comfortable.

“And the women in my family have always taken pride in how we look and how we present ourselves. We believe that we represent our families when we’re out, so we want to put our best foot forward and make sure that we look our best,” she said. “That carries over to my work as a senator representing my community.”

03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Bee Nguyen (D-Atlanta) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
03/25/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Bee Nguyen (D-Atlanta) stands for a photo for AJC reporters Maya Prabhu’s best dressed column on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta

Nguyen said she often considers what’s happening at the Capitol that day as she’s getting dressed — on the first day of the session, shortly after the attack on the U.S. Capitol where some rioters carried a South Vietnamese flag, she made a point to wear traditional Vietnamese áo dài to be sworn in to another term in the House. Acknowledging that not every day is about making that kind of statement, Nguyen says she draws fashion inspiration from ELLE magazine editor-in-chief and “Project Runway” judge Nina García.

“She always has a little bit of an edge to what she wears, but it’s also very structured,” Nguyen said. “And she’s a badass, and I like the combination of a woman who is strong and forward and (also feminine) — like she always says, the ‘hard and soft.’”

Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, says the women in his life, first his mother and then his wife, helped him make the best choices in clothing. "When I was single before I met my wife, I was a little bit on my own and things did not go as well," he said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, says the women in his life, first his mother and then his wife, helped him make the best choices in clothing. "When I was single before I met my wife, I was a little bit on my own and things did not go as well," he said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough

Strickland, an attorney, is quick to credit first his mother and then his wife with helping shape his sense of style — which he described as not wanting to stick out in either a negative or positive light.

“My mom did her best to keep me straight, and then those times before when I was single before I met my wife, I was a little bit on my own and things did not go as well,” he said. “Now I take a lot of guidance from my wife. I‘m happy daily to yield to her and ask her if I look OK. Some days she says, ‘Yeah, you’re fine.’ Some days she actually compliments me first. And I know those are really good days.”

Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, said that while growing up in the the ‘80s and ‘90s he always tried to keep up with the trends. “I think as a young gay kid trying to find his way in the world, I think fashion, for me, just kind of was a way to stand out and and feel like I belonged,” he said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, said that while growing up in the the ‘80s and ‘90s he always tried to keep up with the trends. “I think as a young gay kid trying to find his way in the world, I think fashion, for me, just kind of was a way to stand out and and feel like I belonged,” he said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven

As an attorney, Wilson said he’s filled his closet to the point that he can just grab and go when getting dressed, keeping in mind what’s going on at the Capitol that day in case lawmakers are wearing a certain color to make a statement. Wilson said while looking back at pictures of his fashion choices growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s might be painful, he always tried to keep up with the trends, even as a child.

“I think as a young gay kid trying to find his way in the world, I think fashion, for me, just kind of was a way to stand out and and feel like I belonged,” he said.

*Disclaimer: No algorithms were used in creating this list.

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