OPINION: Two rising stars, one spot left

Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath won their Democratic runoff elections for U.S. congress.
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Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath won their Democratic runoff elections for U.S. congress.

As Lucy McBath shifts to 7th District, Carolyn Bourdeaux’s “not going to back down”

November of 2020 felt like a wave of giddy good fortune for Democrats in the north Atlanta suburbs. Not only did they help deliver the White House for Joe Biden, they also cemented their takeovers of the 6th and 7th Congressional districts with twin victories by Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux.

The two women headed to Washington as key “majority makers” for House Democrats in Washington, McBath for her second term and Bourdeaux for her first.

But on Monday, Republicans in the General Assembly approved a revamp of the 6th District so conservative, McBath’s only logical choice was to pick a race somewhere else to run. She chose the newly drawn 7th District, which Bourdeaux represents, and suddenly two of the Democrats’ rising stars became primary rivals for the seat in 2022.

The primary will be the first test of the Democratic coalition in the new 7th District, a diverse group of Black, Asian and Latino activists, along with white liberals and, at least in 2020, Chamber of Commerce independents who wanted nothing to do with Donald Trump.

And it will be a stark choice for Democratic primary voters, between the emotional appeal of McBath, whose original fight for gun safety is driven by her son’s murder exactly nine years ago, and Bourdeaux, whose wonky commitment to legislative details can alter a bill for the better, but is tough to convey in a Tweet or a text.

One thing is clear from speaking with both camps: McBath and Bourdeaux are each in the fight for the long haul.

I spoke with Bourdeaux Tuesday, as she fielded calls from reporters and put the finishing touches on a press release announcing a group of local mayors in the district who have pledged their support for her — over McBath.

She’s been working the district for the last five years, she said, since she first moved to the county and launched her run for the seat in 2017. And she’s not going anywhere now.

“I’m very sorry that Lucy somehow has decided to just shift gears and come over into the Seventh,” said Bourdeaux. “But this is my district. It’s a place where I have been working for a long time. I really love this community. And so I am not going to back down.”

In McBath, she’ll face the toughest competition she’s ever had, even after winning with 52% in last June’s six-way primary and defeating Republican Rich McCormick in November by a two-point spread.

McBath will bring her two terms in Congress, where she’s already passed bills from gun safety to veterans welfare, and a huge fundraising capacity. Although McBath and Bourdeaux ended the last quarter roughly even, with $1.9 million and $1.7 million cash on hand respectively, McBath has been able to raise huge sums in the past from Michael Bloomberg-backed campaign interests.

But the biggest challenge for Bourdeaux — and anyone who competes with McBath — is the former flight attendant’s personal story of losing her only child, Jordan, to a shooter at a Florida gas station. It animates her work and connects her with voters, especially Democrats.

On Tuesday, as Bourdeaux worked the phones, McBath released a letter she had written to Jordan, something she said she does every year on the anniversary of his death.

And when she announced that she’d run in the 7th District instead of the 6th, she said Jordan is the reason why.

“I made a promise to Jordan and to my community that I’d do everything in my power to keep them safe,” she told the AJC. “I am going to do everything in my power to keep that promise for my son.”

The two heavyweights won’t have the arena to themselves. Years of demographic changes and grassroots organizing have created a deep bench of ambitious Democrats looking for their chance to rise, no matter who else is in the race.

Everton Blair, Jr., the chairman of the Gwinnett Board of Education, had been looking at the race, but may run for state school superintendent instead.

On Monday, state Rep. Donna McLeod, a Gwinnett Democrat, announced she will run for the U.S. House seat, too.

“Neither lady has lived in Gwinnett County like I have for 21 years,” she told me Tuesday. “It took decades for Gwinnett County to become a force to be reckoned with in the Democratic Party and that took a lot of work. I was there from day one.”

McLeod called McBath “a fine lady,” but added, “But she has no idea what Gwinnett County has been fighting for.”

And like other progressives I’ve heard from, she was particularly bothered by Bourdeaux’s move over the summer to push the $1.3 trillion “roads and bridges” infrastructure bill ahead of the separate $3.5 trillion social spending bill, which is still being narrowed and negotiated.

“Pouring concrete and asphalt is no more important than universal pre-K,” McLeod said.

For her part, Bourdeaux said she has no regrets about her decision to push the infrastructure bill first. She said the moderates’ original intent was to have the roads-and-bridges bill ready in time for Virginia Democrats to campaign on, which did not happen.

Republicans swept the usually-purple state after Democrats failed to find a message to connect their pending agenda to normal people’s lives.

“I was trying to save the Democratic Party as well as serve my constituents,” Bourdeaux said. " I think that was a moment that was important, that ultimately, the leadership came around to what I was saying.”

Now that it has passed with votes from both congresswomen, the 7th District should soon get the benefits of the roads and bridges bill, Bourdeaux said, and universal pre-K, Medicaid expansion, and other Democratic priorities should pass in the second bill by the end of the year.

At least, that is the Democrats’ plan. But if we’ve learned anything from the last year in Georgia politics, things don’t always go according to plan.

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