Shifting demographics inspire Thomas to challenge Parent for state Senate

Former state Sen. Nadine Thomas, left, is running against state Sen. Elena Parent in the Democratic primary for Senate District 42.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Former state Sen. Nadine Thomas, left, is running against state Sen. Elena Parent in the Democratic primary for Senate District 42.

During the most recent round of redistricting last year, state Sen. Elena Parent found GOP leaders in the state Legislature had dramatically changed her district.

Republican lawmakers who were in charge of the process reshaped the area to make Parent, a white Democrat, run in a majority-Black district. The boundaries changed from a mostly white, more affluent portion of northwest DeKalb County to a longer, more narrow strip running from southwest DeKalb to the top of Clayton County, transforming the makeup from about 28% Black residents to about 52%.

If the Republican strategy was to make life hard for Parent, it’s working. She quickly drew opposition from Nadine Thomas, a nurse and the first African American woman to be elected to the state Senate, who is challenging Parent for her seat.

Thomas represented DeKalb County in the Senate from 1993 to 2005. After serving two terms in the state House, Parent has been in the Senate since 2015.

“When I saw the configuration of this district, it looked so much like the district that I originally ran in back in 1993,” Thomas said. “It really puts the fire in my belly (to run).”

Thomas also is drawing a divide between herself and Parent along racial lines, saying without evidence that Parent is working to “suppress Black voters’ rights” and accusing her of racist behavior. On social media, she has even posted a manipulated photo of Parent in a crowd of people storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

She said Parent “makes race an issue,” but when asked for examples, Thomas didn’t reference a specific statement or action she considered offensive and said, “I don’t even want to discuss her.”

Parent has rejected that framing by emphasizing her record of working on behalf of Black constituents and touting support she’s received from Black elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and state Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler.

“I’ve always represented a district with a large Black population and very proudly,” Parent said. “Everyone who knows me and has worked with me knows that I’m an effective voice for all Georgians, including Black Georgians.”

The partisan redistricting process, which allows the majority party in power to set boundaries that advantage their members and disadvantage their opponents, means that Parent, the chair for the Senate Democratic Caucus, faces a steeper path toward reelection.

But when it comes to issues, Parent and Thomas largely agree on their support for increased safety measures to prevent gun violence, Medicaid expansion and reproductive rights.

In 1996, four years after she was elected to the state Senate, Thomas wrote and won passage of legislation that requires insurers to cover mothers’ medical stays for at least two days after they give birth and four for those who have cesarean births. In 2002, she sponsored another measure that requires physicians to take custody of a child suspected of being abused.

Throughout her time in office, Thomas voiced her opposition to legislation that would ban gay marriage and in 2003 called Senate leaders at the time “liars” and “egotistical men who have their own personal agendas.”

That sentiment largely remains. “There are legislators, and especially men, who want to take our reproductive freedoms away,” she said.

Thomas claims her supporters include professional colleagues, ministers and elected officials. One of the most prominent is Vernon Jones, a former state representative and far-right, party-switching ally of former President Donald Trump.

“I was surprised, like everybody else, that he took an interest in what I was doing,” Thomas said. “I don’t believe in what he believes in. I’m certainly not a Republican, but who am I to be angry with someone who’s never done anything to me?”

Parent said she is proud to have been “a key legislative voice” on gun safety as well as an advocate for early childhood education. She also emphasized her work as caucus chair to elect more Democratic state senators in Georgia.

If reelected, Parent said her top priority is expanding access to Medicaid, the government health insurance program for people with low or no incomes, for more Georgians.

Parent has been successful in fundraising for her campaign, taking in more than $462,000 and having nearly $300,000 in cash on hand, according to the latest filing available. Thomas, who qualified to run for the seat later than Parent, has not yet hit the first deadline for filing a disclosure of her campaign’s finances.

Thomas’ personal financial picture isn’t great. She owes more than $38,000 in unpaid state and federal taxes. A judge ruled in April that she could continue her candidacy because she is on a payment plan to repay the debt.

As much as Parent said she admires Thomas’ historic achievement, she said she is disheartened by her campaign tactics.

“I think it was certainly a breakthrough when she got elected. She’ll go down in history as that person, and I think that’s a feather in her cap,” Parent said. “It was also many, many, many years ago, and some of her choices as it relates to this campaign ... are very disappointing, especially for someone who had that as an achievement.”

Early voting for the general primary has begun and will run through May 17. Primary election day for in-person voting is May 21. For more information, visit Georgia Decides, a project of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Atlanta Civic Circle.