About six weeks into the 2023 legislative session, freshman state Rep. Long Tran started growing a beard.
Tran, who is Vietnamese American, said his colleagues routinely confused him for two of his House colleagues — Democratic Caucus Whip Sam Park, who is Korean American, and state Rep. Marvin Lim, who was born in the Philippines. And it came from both Democrats and Republicans, he said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of them grow a beard, so I said, ‘All right, I need to differentiate myself,’ ” he said. “I think the beard made a difference, but also, the deeper we get into session, people get to know you better and they’re less likely to make this mistake.”
Tran is part of the most diverse Georgia General Assembly in history, which has more than 80 nonwhite members out of 236 serving in the Legislature this year.
The General Assembly has historically been mostly composed of white lawmakers, with Black legislators beginning to be elected in the 1960s. This year, lawmakers came from a variety of backgrounds, including the first Palestinian American elected official in the state joining the Georgia House and a Bangladeshi American woman joining the Senate. Both are Muslim.
There are at least 83 nonwhite members out of 236 serving in the Legislature this year, with five Hispanic members, eight members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community, two Afro Latino members and one Arab woman, according to an analysis of the 2023 class of lawmakers by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Lawmakers also formed bipartisan AAPI and Hispanic caucuses, another first in the state’s history.
Tran, a Democrat from Dunwoody who took office in January, said he was glad to be among the state’s largest class of AAPI members.
“As a freshman, it’s hard to know what impact this large freshman class, that is quite diverse, will be — and it’s on both sides (of the political aisle),” said Tran, who wore an áo dài, Vietnamese formal wear, for his first day in the Legislature, as did Bee Nguyen for her House swearing-in ceremony in 2021. (Nguyen left the Legislature to run for secretary of state last year.)
There are 68 Black members serving in the Legislature and 151 white members. Four members are Muslim, and one is Jewish. There are 81 women, one more than last year and the most ever for the state according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. One seat is vacant due to the death of freshman state Rep. Tish Naghise earlier this year.
State Rep. Ruwa Romman is Palestinian American and the first lawmaker to wear a hijab — a head covering worn by some Muslim women — at the Capitol. She said she had braced herself for unpleasant run-ins with both lawmakers and visitors. But that turned out not to be the case.
“People will ask inquisitive questions, but I think their curiosity got the best of them, so they were too curious to be mean,” the Duluth Democrat said. “The curiosity came from across the political spectrum. A lot of people have never worked with a Muslim, hijab-wearing colleague before. ...The most antagonistic experiences I’ve had were from visitors.”
For example, a man with a Christian group that was visiting the Capitol followed her around the building reading from the Bible.
“At first you think maybe you’re being paranoid, but after walking behind me for two or three floors reading a Bible out loud, it’s clear he was following me,” she said.
Ten years ago, there were 65 nonwhite members of the Legislature — 62 Black members, two Hispanic members and one Asian American member. Fifty-five legislators were women.
The diversity of the Legislature is beginning to catch up to the diversity of the state. Between Georgia’s 2010 and 2020 census counts, the number of Black Georgians increased by 13%, while the white population dropped by 1%. The state’s Asian American population jumped by 53%, and its Hispanic population rose by 32%.
The Peach State narrowly remained majority-white at just over 50% in the 2020 census. By contrast, the Republican-majority General Assembly is 65% white.
Many of the new legislators of color come from racially diverse Gwinnett County, which between 2010 and 2020 added more than 41,000 Asian American residents and saw its Hispanic population grow by more than 58,000.
This year, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Jason Anavitarte, a Dallas Republican who is of Puerto Rican descent, founded the state’s first Georgia Hispanic Caucus. Anavitarte became the first Republican Latino to serve in the Senate when he was elected in 2020. The bipartisan group includes the state’s seven Hispanic members.
“It’s about having this place where we can convene and share ideas and have a policy debate with it being meaningful,” he said. “We can have a discussion of ideas with Republicans having our perspective and Democrats having their perspective, and then having the conversation of where do we land?”
State Rep. Pedro Marin, a Duluth Democrat who was among the first three Hispanic legislators first elected in 2002, said he has seen the way some Georgians interact with Hispanic members change for the better over his years in office.
“When I first moved to Georgia in 1995, there were people who wouldn’t shake my hand and turned their back on me when they realized I was Latino,” said Marin, who is originally from Puerto Rico. “It’s changed, but why has it changed? Because legislators’ (minds) have changed and legislators have found out that the Hispanic community itself is diverse. We’re not a one-party community.”