Trio of Georgia senators will make history this session

Georgia's iconic Gold Dome. AJC/Bob Andres.
Caption
Georgia's iconic Gold Dome. AJC/Bob Andres.

When a trio of Georgia senator are sworn in Jan. 11, they’ll each bring perspectives that haven’t been represented in the upper chamber.

Sen.-elect Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, is the first east Asian and first openly non-religious senator to serve in the chamber in recent history. Sen.-elect Kim Jackson, a Stone Mountain Democrat, will be the first openly gay senator.

Sen.-elect Jason Anavitarte, a Dallas Republican, is the first Latino to represent the GOP in the chamber. Former Democratic state Sen. Sam Zamarripa became Georgia’s first Latino senator when he was elected in 2003. He served through 2007.

“The importance of these elections isn’t so much for any one group or identity politics, as some call it,” Au said. “It’s really a matter of making sure that many groups have a seat at the table and the stories of the new voices join the conversation.”

Au, an anesthesiologist, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a first-time elected official. She said both being a first-generation American and someone who does not subscribe to one specific religious faith are assets she will bring to her role as senator.

Au previously identified as an atheist, and said while agnosticism more closely aligns with her belief system, she didn’t have a particular label. But, she said, her belief in following the “golden rule” positions her to represent Georgians.

“When people in politics talk about the issue of faith and make it a policy platform, what they’re talking about is a moral code,” Au said. “My moral code and ethical blueprint is to seek to do as much good as you can and seek to help those in need.”

Jackson, a Black woman and Episcopal priest, said she is bringing a unique experience to the chamber.

“I sit at the intersections of multiple marginalized communities,” she said. “If you always sat in the majority you’re not exactly attuned to thinking about who’s not here. ... But I know what it is like to be the only woman in the room or the only Black person in the room, so I have a heart and a passion for other Georgians who find themselves being the only.”

Anavitarte said his experience as the son of a Puerto Rican father who grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression and served in the U.S. Army before working in the trucking industry in Georgia shapes his world view.

“The background of my dad and also growing up in a working-class household with him working in the trucking industry for over 20 years means I’m someone who could understand what’s going on on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Anavitarte, who is the director of community relations and life services for CareSource Georgia - a nonprofit insurer that also manages Medicaid and Medicare plans - previously served on the Paulding County School Board and worked for Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s campaign in 2018.

Zamarripa, who retired from politics and now serves as chairman of Hispanic news outlet MundoHispanico and CEO of a technology company, said there is a heavy burden with being the first from any demographic.

“Being the first may be an accomplishment but doesn’t come without expectation,” Zamarripa said.

While he was in office, Zamarripa said he had to balance the needs of the Latino community with the needs of the Black community — which made up an overwhelming majority of his Atlanta-based district. Anavitarte will face a similar balancing act representing a district overwhelmingly made up of white residents. According to U.S. Census estimates, only about 6.3% of the district’s residents are Hispanic.

When he is sworn in, Anavitarte will be the only Republican elected official in the Legislature who is not white, something that posed a challenge for his primary and runoff election campaigns.

Anavitarte had to combat lies that were spread that he was an illegal immigrant and a Mexican — which was used as a kind of slur. Anavitarte was born in Georgia and people from Puerto Rico — where is father is from — are American citizens. He said he was glad voters saw through the “nasty games.”

“In many ways, whether you’re Latino or not, we’re Georgians and we’re all Americans first,” he said. “It’s about how do we bring together those things we have in common to find ways to bring out the policies to make sure the next generations can succeed.”

All three new senators say they know they will sometimes be a lone voice speaking to issues that affect their community, but they said being in the room where the decisions are made is important.

Specifically, Jackson said forming bonds with her colleagues in the Senate could lead to fewer bills being pushed that would harm people who are LGBT.

“By not having a LGBTQ member in the Senate until 2021, the outcome of that lack of representation means there have been bills introduced in the Senate that have been exclusively anti-LGBTQ,” she said. “But it’s a lot harder to introduce bills that are harmful to people that you know personally versus someone in the abstract.”

Jackson said she plans to introduce a bill to protect members of the LGBT community from housing and workplace discrimination.

Lawmakers passed a hate crimes bill last year that increases the penalty for someone convicted of a crime that targets a member of the LGBT community, and several others. It was the first time Georgia extended specific protections to people who are LGBT.

All three senators said they don’t expect to be the last person with their background to serve in the Senate.

“It’s nice to see the changing face of the Legislature starting to reflect the changing face of Georgia,” Au said.