Two Georgia senators tell story of changing Gwinnett County

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, now serves the district long held by David Shafer, who is the Georgia Republican Party chairman. Submitted photos.

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, now serves the district long held by David Shafer, who is the Georgia Republican Party chairman. Submitted photos.

When former state Sen. David Shafer was first elected, his Duluth-based district was made up mostly of white voters — as was Gwinnett County.

Eighteen years later, voters in that same district elected the chamber’s first senator of East Asian descent when they chose state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat and daughter of Chinese immigrants.

The seat was flipped from Republican to Democratic representation by former state Sen. Zahra Karinshak — whose father is from Iran — two years before that, when Shafer left office to make an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor.

“I sort of always presumed that much of the state Legislature was a heavily entrenched Republican old guard,” Au said. “Eventually, I saw there is a big Democratic presence here that was here all along but was more silent or dormant and got energized by the (2016 presidential) election of Donald Trump.”

Ideologically, Au and Shafer are worlds apart.

Shafer, who now serves as the Georgia Republican Party chairman and has been a leading voice in questioning the validity of President Joe Biden’s win in the state, has deeply conservative viewpoints.

While in the Senate, Shafer helped engineer the passage of several Republican priorities, including the expansion of the places where guns could be carried, a reduction in the state income tax rate and a “religious liberty” bill that would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny services “that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.”

Au, an anesthesiologist who took office in January, has filed legislation that she says would protect patients from unexpected emergency room costs and — after last week’s deadly shootings at three Atlanta-area spas — a bill that would require background checks for all gun purchases and transfers.

And while Shafer, who is white, often drew from his Christian faith when making legislative decisions, Au previously identified herself as an atheist and says agnosticism more closely aligns with her belief system.

Shafer said he hadn’t studied the legislation Au has introduced or stances she’s taken since she’s been in office, but he knew their approaches to representing the district would be different.

“I don’t know Dr. Au, but I do know the immigrant community is very conservative,” Shafer said. “Immigrant communities in particular respond to conservative measures. They are, by and large, conservative. They’re hardworking, thrifty, family-oriented, religious and value education.”

Shafer never faced a Democratic opponent during his tenure in the state Senate, but after the 2016 election, he said he knew the district was becoming more competitive.

The redrawing of district lines and increasingly diverse electorate both contributed to the ideological shift. Gwinnett County-based Senate District 48 includes Johns Creek and stretches east to encompass parts of Lawrenceville.

The district as drawn in 2002 was 77% white, and Asian, Black and Hispanic residents each made up about 7% of the population, according to the state Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office.

When the lines were redrawn in 2011 and again in 2012 — the most recent configuration of Senate District 48 — that demographic makeup had drastically changed. According to 2018 estimated data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the district’s white voting population had dropped to about 40%. The Asian population had more than tripled to 25%, the Black population had grown to 17% and Hispanic residents made up 14%.

That shift is expected to be even more noticeable once the federal government releases 2020 census figures.

Recent elections show Gwinnett’s political identity has changed, too. A county that supported Republican George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election backed Democrats Joe Biden in 2020 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Shafer said he doesn’t believe the diverse district is lost to Republican representation — something that could prove true when lawmakers redraw state and congressional districts later this year, likely adding GOP voters.

“I think the challenge for Republicans is not to change the message, to be comfortable campaigning everywhere, to everyone,” he said.

But Au said disillusioned Democrats had been waiting for an opportunity to send representation that reflects who they are to the Capitol.

“Sometimes change foments under the surface. It takes certain events like him vacating his seat and Zahra (Karinshak) running first,” Au said. “These are the societal events that build to the tipping point.”