The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Democrats, the elusive dream of a blue Georgia hinges on rapidly diversifying Atlanta suburbs

Renee Peters during the 9:30 a.m. service at Berean Christian Church Gwinnett. The predominantly black church hosted an NAACP forum and welcomed Democratic candidates for services in a rapidly diversifying, populous suburb of Atlanta that will be instrumental in November. (Kevin D. Liles/For The Washington Post)

DULUTH, Ga. — If a blue electoral wave crests in Georgia in November, it will be pushed by dramatically changing counties such as Gwinnett in what once were the Republican strongholds of suburban Atlanta.

Georgia’s second-largest county has transformed from 67 percent white in 2000 to 62 percent nonwhite last year, stunning longtime residents and shaking up the political environment.

The county’s demographic upheaval is part of a broad transformation in the state and the South, where the longtime dominance of white voters has been challenged not only by African Americans but Hispanics and Asians, many of them new arrivals.

The outcome of one of the hottest gubernatorial races of this year, pitting Democrat Stacey Abrams, a liberal former state House leader who would be the nation’s first black female governor, against Republican Brian Kemp, a self-proclaimed “politically incorrect conservative,” may rest on whether a wide-ranging Democratic effort to turn out new voters can succeed.

Democrats have also been eyeing potential gains in the House in Georgia and — as they have for many years, unsuccessfully — turning the state blue in the 2020 presidential contest.

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Democratic efforts rest in the hands of people such as University of Georgia student Luke Cho, a volunteer with a nonpartisan Asian American advocacy group knocking on doors in Duluth, once heavily white and now half Asian and black.

One knock was answered by Deborah Mosley, a black woman who is 67 and moved to Georgia eight years ago from Michigan. She and her family are among the tens of thousands of middle-class blacks, Asian immigrants and Latinos who have poured into Gwinnett County in the past decade, drawn to good schools and affordable homes.

“If we don’t hurry up and make a change, our world as we know it is going to end,” said Mosley, who said she is excited to cast her ballot this year. “People of color need to unite.”

Past Democratic efforts to harness Georgia’s demographic changes have been blunted by poor turnout among minorities.No Democrat has won a gubernatorial or Senate election in Georgia since 2000, but party activists believe they saw early signs of success in 2016.

Just six counties in the nation swung Democratic in the 2016 presidential race after backing Republicans in the previous two cycles. Half of them werein the metropolitan Atlanta region: Cobb and Henry counties, and — the largest — Gwinnett.

This year, one early sign has bred optimism: More people in the county cast Democratic ballots than GOP ballots in May’s gubernatorial primary.

As she delivers a message meant to have broad statewide appeal, Abrams’s campaign is working to mobilize minority residents who haven’t registered or cast ballots in nonpresidential races. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez apologized for taking black voters for granted at a recent fundraiser in Atlanta.

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“There are these underserved markets, these vast swaths of Georgia’s potential electorate that haven’t been encouraged to vote,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “If metro Atlanta becomes more Democratic, that’s going to make Georgia more competitive.”

Across the country, similar suburbs, once dominated by whites and now diverse, have become crucial for Democrats.

The majority-minority exurbs of Washington fueled Democrat Ralph Northam’s blowout win in Virginia’s gubernatorial race last year. Suburban minority voters probably will be decisive in the battle for Congress this year, in districts that include Orange County, Calif., and the areas surrounding Houston and Dallas.

Still, a Democratic victory even in changing areas is no sure thing.

In Gwinnett, the population is more diverse than the electorate, which according to voter registration data is 45 percent white and a quarter black. Asians and Latinos each make up 7.5 percent — but organizing them can be a challenge. They are split into subgroups hailing from Korea, Cuba, the Caribbean islands, India, Vietnam, Mexico and other places — each with their own institutions and varying levels of political activism.

Voter file data, used to target mailers and canvassers, isn’t as reliable for new voters, meaning that many of them are bypassed even by the most determined outreach.

Gwinnett County Republican Party Chairman Mike Seigle is skeptical that newer arrivals will flock to Democrats, citing split-ticket voters who delivered the county to Hillary Clinton in 2016, even as they sided with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican.

“If the Republicans can keep the focus on local issues, quality of life things, they will do just fine in Gwinnett County,” Seigle said.

The evolution in Georgia and nearby states has come at a breakneck pace. Since 1990, the percentage of whites in the South has dropped from 72 percent to 57 percent. The minority population has doubled from 24 million to 53 million, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

In Gwinnett, once farm country, subdivisions, commercial office parks and sprawling shopping centers have sprouted in recent years; the bustling 900,000-person county is expected to attract a half-million more people by 2040.

Black, Latino and Asian children now make up three of every four students in the school system, compared to one in five two decades ago. In recent years, storefronts with Korean language signs and the Asian grocery store H Mart have opened near Gwinnett Place Mall.

The changes haven’t come without tension.

“People who have had power don’t want to share it. That’s why our school board is white. Our county commission is white,” said Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett chapter of the NAACP.

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One of those county commissioners, Tommy Hunter, sparked a firestorm last year when he called civil rights legend and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) a “racist pig” for refusing to attend President Trump’s inauguration. Residents and activists packed county meetings for months to protest Hunter.

“What he did was awaken a sleeping giant and create a coalition of people,” Poole said.

State Rep. Sam Park, the son of Korean immigrants and the only Democrat to unseat a Republican state lawmaker from Gwinnett in 2016, acknowledges that persuading newcomers to become politically involved remains a challenge for his party.

“For immigrant families, their primary focus is making sure the next generation has a solid foundation to thrive. Political engagement has just started,” Park said in an interview at a Korean bakery in Duluth.

“But the national political environment is perhaps accelerating the need for us to have a seat at the table.”

Local political groups say Trump’s immigration crackdown has been a motivating factor for Gwinnett voters — in both major parties.

Kemp has made immigration a signature issue in his gubernatorial race, vowing support for “ironclad borders” and running a commercial saying that he would round up “criminal illegals” in his pickup truck. Abrams has denounced the Trump administration’s policies as “cruel and inhumane.”

The issue is especially sensitive in Gwinnett, where the local sheriff signed an agreement in 2009 to assist federal immigration authorities. Critics said that has led to racial profiling and made some Latinos afraid to open their doors for political canvassers.

Gwinnett’s diversity has given Democrats hope not just for statewide races but in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, a majority-minority district by population that Trump carried by six points.

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Independent analysts say four-term incumbent Republican Rob Woodall is the favorite, in part because the district lines were drawn to include reliably conservative Forsyth County. But his fundraising has lagged and he has never run a competitive race. Neither Woodall’s nor Kemp’s campaigns responded to questions about efforts to reach out to nonwhite voters.

Democrats used to struggle to find candidates to run against Woodall but had a crowded primary field this year that led to a runoff between Korean American businessman David Kim and public policy professor Carolyn Bourdeaux, who is white.

Bourdeaux, who was supported by Emily’s List, former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and other prominent black politicians, narrowly won. Kim endorsed her and offered to help organize a diverse coalition of voters for Democrats.

“This county’s diversity is not only beautiful; it’s powerful and if we can stick together, we can never lose another race,” Kim said at an NAACP forum at a black church where he attended services before the election.

Bourdeaux believes she can win if she follows Abrams’s lead in mobilizing nonwhites and persuades enough white voters used to living in a GOP stronghold that it’s socially acceptable to vote blue.

“A lot of people moved here recently, so the deep social networks you find in other parts of the country are just starting to form,” Bourdeaux said. “At same time, it’s exciting. It’s a very, very New South.”

On a recent Sunday, Bourdeaux brought cupcakes she purchased from a bake sale supporting migrants separated from their children to an African American service fraternity’s cookout at a lakeside park in Lawrenceville.

She wove through benches and introduced herself to residents who were swatting flies away under the hot Georgia sun.

“Once Trump got in, you got inspired to run?” asked Harold Marshall, who is 63 and one of the fraternity leaders.

“I would say that’s one of the reasons,” Bourdeaux replied.

“That’s good enough for me!” Marshall said.

Marshall said he has noticed an “atmospheric change” in Gwinnett County since 2016 that has fired him up to vote.

“Since Trump has been there, people haven’t been as friendly at the post office and grocery store,” he said.

But he’s still skeptical of whether there’s enough support to make a Democratic sweep happen. Most of his neighbors are Indian American — a group Bourdeaux is trying to woo — but he hasn’t see any campaign signs on their yards and politics never comes up when they talk.

“You never know, because we’re here in Georgia,” said Marshall. “It’s a red state.”