Breaking New Ground and Fighting Voter Suppression in Georgia: Interview with Rep. Sam Park
By Eddie Wong. Posted October 14, 2022.
Intro: Rep. Sam Park has represented Georgia’s 101st District in the State Legislature since 2016. He is one of five Asian Americans in the House and Senate, an historic first for Asian American representation in Georgia, the country’s eighth largest state. In this interview, Sam Park tells us about what led him to politics. Sam works as a lawyer for Positive Impact Health Centers, a community non-profit health center, as well as serving as a representative for his Lawrenceville, GA district.
As we head towards the watershed mid-term election on Nov. 8, 2022, Rep. Park shares challenges Georgia voters face when Republican-led state legislatures and governors approve undemocratic voter restriction laws. In the face of voter suppression, activists have spurred new voter registration drives and increased voter turnout efforts. Park is also shaping a new narrative about Asian Pacific Americans who, contrary to the quiet, model minority myth, are vital forces in the multiracial, broad-based coalition for progressive change. This interview was conducted in November 2021 and September 2022.
Eddie Wong: Tell us about your political career.
Rep. Sam Park: I’ve been in office for six years now. I was elected in 2016 and won the very same night that Donald Trump won. I unseated a three-term Republican chairwoman. I have the honor of being the first Asian American Democrat as well as the first openly gay man ever elected to the Georgia State Legislature. Currently, I serve as chair of the Gwinnett state house delegation, which really is the political epicenter in the State of Georgia.
I come from a low-income immigrant background where our primary focus was making sure that we could make ends meet. I was raised by a single mother; where she did all she could to ensure there was food on the table and a roof over our heads. I decided to run for office after my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2014. That hardship and experience taught me firsthand how important access to healthcare really is. In Georgia, the very same year in which my mother was diagnosed, they blocked Medicaid expansion. They blocked access to healthcare for more than 500,000 low-income Georgians. Access to healthcare is a matter of life or death. My mother’s battle against cancer inspired me to stand and fight to ensure that every Georgian has access to healthcare.
Along the way I ended up making history, but it was public policy that initially compelled me to run for office. Being born and raised in Georgia, for the most part, I grew up in a diverse community. Georgia didn’t suddenly turn Blue during the 2020 general election. Generational change is driving demographic change, that is driving political change. My county, despite once being a conservative stronghold, is now the most diverse county in the state of Georgia and will soon be Georgia’s largest county by population. Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to continue to demonstrate leadership in a diverse county that is more representative of the future of this country.
Eddie Wong: Tell us a bit more about your background. Why did your mother come from Korea to settle in the United States?
Rep. Sam Park: My grandparents were refugees from the Korean War. I grew up hearing stories of how they had to get on a train to go down to Busan, the southernmost part of South Korea. They lived on dirt floors. My aunt, who lives outside of San Francisco, was born in a broken-down ambulance; I come from humble beginnings. My mother moved to America like many immigrants in the late 70s and early 80s in pursuit of the American Dream and to ensure that her kids, myself and my sisters, would have more opportunity and a better life. My story is a reminder that the American Dream is very much alive and well. As a son of immigrants and grandson of refugees, I now have an opportunity to serve more than 60,000 folks in the state legislature in which we pass laws that affect 10 million Georgians.
Family photo courtesy of Sam Park.
Eddie Wong: When you ran for office did you find a lot of support in the Asian Community? Do they identify with your story?
Rep. Sam Park: Definitely, there’s never been an Asian American who has represented that area. Before myself, there was only one other Asian American – he was a Republican – who served in the state legislature. We’re really at this tipping point in which for the first time Asian Americans understand and see that their state government is their government. In terms of the 2020 elections, we saw unprecedented turnout among Asian Americans. They understood for the first time how much political power they actually wield. When I was first elected, I was the only Asian American in 2017 and today we now have five Asian Americans in the state legislature, which is the most we’ve ever had in our state’s history and hopefully we will continue to see Asian American representation grow in Georgia.
Eddie Wong: Was there any hesitation among voters about you being gay?
Rep. Sam Park: It was kind of a non-issue by-and-large. There was hesitation within the Asian American community, however, I was not running to make history, I was running on public policy issues and the expansion of healthcare.
Eddie Wong: Asians, especially ones on the west coast, have no idea about what the Asian communities are like in the South. What’s the range of people’s life situations?
Rep. Sam Park: First and foremost, the Asian American community in George is incredibly diverse. There are more than 30 ethnicities and at least 50 languages that are spoken. They mostly live in a concentrated manner throughout the northern suburbs of Atlanta, which has been a key political battle ground during the past few election cycles and for the foreseeable future. Many are first-generation and so there’s a high level of limited English proficiency among the Asian American community. And there’s the second generation who were born in America and are coming-of-age like myself.
The older generation of Asian Americans, approximately 50 years and older who were born in another country and emigrated here, still remain the largest segment. Not only can this community be more socially conservative, but they are also fiscally conservative. As many are small business owners, their primary focus is establishing an economic foundation for the next generation.
One of the fascinating transformations and realignments that we experienced during the 2020 election cycle is where a lot of these strong Asian Republicans started to move toward the center and toward the Democratic Party. They saw Donald Trump as an authoritarian and understood the clear and present danger that his racist rhetoric embraced and repeated by Republicans posed to themselves and their family members – calling this virus that has killed 5 million plus people around the world in less than two years the China virus. Being in the South where we’ve had a history of white supremacy, folks can’t distinguish between who is Chinese versus Korean versus Vietnamese. Understanding the dangers of white supremacy and xenophobia embraced by Trump and far-right Republicans helped drive Asian Americans toward the Democratic party. With the understanding that their vote matters and their vote counts – with Democrats fighting for every American’s right to participate and vote – hopefully Asian Americans will continue to support and elect candidates who are working for their best interests.
Asian Justice Rally, March 17, 2022. Photo from Georgia Asian Times.
Eddie Wong: You have a very interesting election coming up with State Rep. Bee Nguyen running for Secretary of State and Stacey Abram running for governor. As we’ve seen with races in Virginia and New Jersey in 2021, the Republicans are mobilizing like crazy and without Trump actually being a factor on the ticket. Do you think they’ll be less enthusiasm or heightened enthusiasm with these candidates running?
Rep. Sam Park: There are so many factors. It is difficult to speculate what if any effect the national ticket and the traditional swing back to the other political party during mid-term elections may have on elections in Georgia. My general understanding is that what’s really driving political change in Georgia is generational change that is rapidly diversifying the state of Georgia. Given how far the Republican party has moved to the right, they do not represent the vast majority of the next generation and unfortunately the Republican Party continues to demonstrate that they are bad for American democracy.
In 2019, Republicans passed SB 202 that will make it more difficult for Georgians of all backgrounds to vote. One of the big battles that I tried to address is Republicans effort to double the size of local government in Gwinnett County. It’s ludicrous and so insulting where literally one white man, one state senator, tried to fundamentally transform the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education in a county of more than a million people, the majority of whom are people of color.
Eddie Wong: What is the change that that they want to make?
Rep. Sam Park: They wanted to strip the power of the first African-American woman to lead Gwinnett County as Chair in 200 years and double the size of the County Commission effectively diluting all the duly elected county commissioners who are all people of color. Now that minorities comprise a majority on the boards of local government in Gwinnett, they tried to dilute and undermine the power of people of color, not just voters but elected officials.
I’m trying to ensure a fair and transparent process to produce fair electoral district maps. A fair process that most importantly provides an opportunity for public comment by folks who actually live in Gwinnett County. This sort of unilateral action is disgusting but unfortunately it is their modus operandi. They have continued to demonstrate with their actions that they could care less about American democracy and the will of the people.
Eddie Wong: I guess the only recourse is to boot them out of office in 2022 if that’s even possible.
Rep. Sam Park: Based on how they’re drawing themselves into safer Republican districts, that will be unlikely. If they force these maps through, litigation would be filed, but certainly this is not the way in which I wanted to start the 2020 decade. The last thing that people want and need is dirty politics; let’s come together in a transparent open forum and discuss what’s best for people. We’re public servants; our job is not to force our will on others but to hear and ultimately serve as vehicles for the will of the people. That’s what makes American democracy beautiful. But again, it’s this virulent strain that we continue to see bubble up within the Republican Party that is an authoritarian, fascist like takeover of government. We remain in incredibly difficult times.
The reality is that it’s hard. I very much feel that we’re in the trenches. For the very first time in our state’s history there’s an opportunity for a multiracial coalition to emerge in which we have the freedom to determine our shared future. There will be every effort, especially at the state level which wields an enormous amount of power, to suppress, to crack and pack us and to ultimately prevent the freedom of Asian Americans who live in Georgia to choose their candidates of choice at all levels of government.
We were successful in defeating Governor Kemp and the Republicans’ efforts to double the size of local government, which was a response to take back political power when Gwinnett County became majority Democrat and majority people of color. Though we were successful in defeating that initial effort during the regular legislative session, earlier in 2022, they came back again to continue their efforts to claw back political power by creating a majority white district in the most diverse county in the state of Georgia. My comment, which got a lot of national attention, was that white power is alive and well in the Georgia Republican Party based on their actions in passing racially gerrymandered districts at the federal, state and local level.
The midterm elections are coming up soon. The first Black woman in 200 years elected to the Gwinnett County Commission is facing a very challenging election in which she was essentially put into a 60-40 Republican district that is majority white, despite the fact that the vast majority of population growth in Gwinnett County was from the Asian and Hispanic communities.
Democratic State Representatives (l-r) Kim Schofield, Viola Davis and Sandra Scott, speaking to the crowd, join demonstrators and activists during a voting rights protest at Liberty Plaza across from the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday March 25, 2021. Photo by Dean Hesse from Decaturish.org
Eddie Wong: Redistricting also affected your colleague, State Senator Michelle Au.
Rep. Sam Park: Correct. Like what they did with Rep. Lucy McBath, the Republican redistricting replaced 300,000 voters of color at the federal level. Rep. Lucy McBath and Michelle Au’s districts overlap. Senator Michelle Au is the first Chinese American and the first Asian American woman ever elected to the Georgia State Senate, and they essentially drew her out of her seat primarily because of how effective she was during her first term. As a physician, she passed legislation that would have addressed surprise billing in emergency rooms. She was an excellent and very strong advocate for gun safety reform after the March 16, 2021 spa shootings in Atlanta.
What was response of Governor Kemp and Republicans? It was to target her and her alone out of all the state senators in Georgia and to essentially make her seat unwinnable. She hasn’t given up. She is running for an open State House seat, but that seat is also competitive. She has a big fight on her hands. And it would be a very big loss for the Asian American community in Georgia if she no longer has an opportunity to continue to serve. There is a PBS documentary that’s coming out on October 17th that highlights Senator Au, her work when it comes to advocating for gun safety in Georgia, and the redistricting fight.
Honored to again be endorsed by Fair Fight PAC for the general election, here in the epicenter of the national battle for voting rights. – Statement by Dr. Michelle Au from Facebook Page.
Eddie Wong: Was your State House seat redistricted?
Rep. Sam Park: Yes, they tried to draw me in with another Democrat and put me in a swing district. They missed. They ended up drawing my family out of my new district and ended up putting me in a 65% Democratic seat.
Eddie Wong: OK, good, you’re safe.
Rep. Sam Park: I should be OK.
Eddie Wong: We talked also about the historic significance of State Rep. Bee Nguyen’s race for Secretary of State, and I see that she’s down in the polls. What’s the big challenge in that race?
Rep. Sam Park: It’s a good reminder that Georgia remains a swing state. I believe Stacey Abrams and Bee Nguyen can win, but they face a difficult road ahead. Women running for higher office, not only have to demonstrate that they are more qualified, they must also demonstrate they’re likable. Men running for higher office don’t face similar hurdles or expectations. I’m ride or die for both Stacey and Bee. We have a once in a generation opportunity to elect a once in a generation leader like Stacey who will help us make progress in healthcare, education, housing, and economic mobility. And Bee would be an excellent Secretary of State as demonstrated by her experience in the legislature where she helped lead the fight to protect the vote and push back against Trump and election denier’s conspiracy theories.
One of the big issues I’m working on right now are the 37,500 voter challenges filed in Gwinnett County on August 29th. SB 202, which Gov. Kemp signed and Sec. of State Raffensperger supported, allows for an unlimited number of challenges to be filed against Georgia voters that must be addressed immediately before election results may be certified. About 95% of these challenges are baseless; they do not have legal grounds to be sustained, and it still imposes a significant burden on election workers who are trying to sort out tens of thousands of claims based on a conspiracy theory, which prevent them from preparing for the upcoming election. During the last public Board of Elections meeting, the challengers were primarily focused on the 2020 election. The Republican Party, unfortunately, continues to demonstrate that the dominant faction remains election deniers and anti-democracy extremists.
Eddie Wong: Are there any plans for the either the Georgia Democratic Party or other independent groups to monitor the polls on Election Day?
Rep. Sam Park: Absolutely. We have a very strong voter protection team that is monitoring all of these issues in Georgia.
Rep. Sam Park and Secretary of State Candidate Rep. Bee Nguyen at GA Dem Party event Aug. 2022. Photo from Sam Park Facebook page.
Eddie Wong: One of the big stories nationally has been Georgia’s voter suppression laws. The counter to that is to register thousands of new voters. Have you seen an upsurge in voter registration?
Rep. Sam Park: Since the 2020 election in Georgia, we’ve seen the electorate continue to transform and diversify reflecting our state’s changing population. Georgia does have an automatic voter registration system that for the entirety of 2021 was turned off by someone that no one knows and for a reason that no one knows. The automatic voter registration system was turned off including efforts to update your voter registration status. This points to the reality that there remain systemic efforts to make it more difficult to vote.
Another big change caused by the anti-voter SB 202 are the limitations imposed on absentee voting that make it harder to vote by mail. A large majority of Asian Americans in Georgia voted by mail during the 2020 election at the height of the pandemic. You can’t simply request your ballot online. You have to print off an application and have a wet signature on the application. Then you must scan the application and send it in just to get your absentee ballot. If you don’t have a printer, if you don’t have a scanner, if you’re elderly or disabled, if you’re not technologically savvy, voting by mail will be that much more difficult for you
Kemp and Republicans also limited the number of drop boxes in populous counties, and you can only access those drop boxes during the times in which the polls are open from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm. So, essentially the benefits of voting by mail have been significantly reduced, especially for working class folks. What we’re encouraging folks to do is to vote early in person. In Gwinnett County, we’ll have 19 days of early voting from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, with 11 locations to serve about 500,000 voters. We’re doing what we can to push back against these voter suppression efforts and ultimately, do we have the capacity to overcome these barriers? Absolutely. We must educate people as to these new barriers and encourage them to vote early and in person as the best way to make sure that their vote counts in this election cycle.
The other big concern amidst these voter suppression laws are what I believe to be racially gerrymandered districts that have been signed into law. A federal District Court found that that the Alabama map had been racially gerrymandered, but they’re not going to interfere because we’re too close to the election. If there’s no immediate legal remedy available at the federal level, there’s not going to be a legal remedy that we can avail ourselves at the state and local level. Thus, we are moving forward and are being forced to run on maps that are racially gerrymandered, and partisan gerrymandered along with new voter suppression laws that will make it harder for folks to vote.
The Dobbs decision certainly fired up people and so have blatantly egregious, un-American voter suppression efforts. Requests for absentee ballots, regardless of these new barriers that have been imposed, so far, are surpassing 2018 numbers. And my understanding is that they are disproportionately female and Black. There are early indications that the multiracial, multiethnic, multigenerational coalition that helped turn Georgia Blue in 2020 is beginning to form regardless of the polling numbers. I do not believe polling numbers are accurately capturing low propensity voters or first-time voters. If we are successful in turning out these voters, which tend to be younger people of color, we have an opportunity to continue to move Georgia forward.
Photo from Sam for Georgia Facebook page.
Eddie Wong: There’s been sort of a steady climb in Asian American voters over the last couple of cycles. Are you seeing that again in this cycle?
Rep. Sam Park: I hope so. It’s too early to tell. When it comes to voter turnout, 2020-2021 was the high watermark for Asian American political participation in the state of Georgia.
I’ve been doing my best to effectuate a similar turnout this election cycle. With the expectation that the elections will be close, the Asian American community can help serve as that margin of victory, especially younger Asian Americans who tend to lean more progressive and Democratic.
Because the Asian American community demonstrated our political power during the 2020 election cycle there’s been a renewed effort from both political parties to invest in and empower Asian American communities. However, it’s one thing for there to be grassroots mobilization where the community itself sends forth candidates to run and represent their communities. It’s another matter for a political party to run an Asian American in a non-Asian American district so that they can say that they represent Asian Americans similar to for example what the Republican Party is doing with Herschel Walker and the Black community.
Eddie Wong: And Georgia has a runoff system, right? You have to deny the GOP 50% + 1. That’s a tall order.
Rep. Sam Park: It is. Despite difficult headwinds, can we still win? Is the race winnable for both Warnock and Stacey and other top of the ticket races? Absolutely. The numbers are there. If everyone voted, Stacy would win with 52% of the vote. It really is going to come down to turn out. Asian American voters, young voters, Black voters, we have to understand our power and responsibility because if we don’t know the power we have, we’re not going to use it. So, I’m doing all I can to inspire, encourage and let folks know that we can build a better future if we elect good leaders who have a plan and who are committed to expanding opportunities for all. So yes, the tall order remains. But can we do it? Absolutely.
Eddie Wong: Thank you so much for taking the time.
Rep. Sam Park: OK. My pleasure, Eddie. Thanks for having me.
Editor’s Note: Rep. Sam Park is running for re-election in 2022. Please support him and send your donations to Sam for Georgia 2022
Interviewer Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor and publisher of East Wind ezine. He is a longtime cultural and political activist in the Asian American Movement.
Asian Americans for Stacey Abrams rally with Rep. Sam Park and Rep. Bee Nguyen. October 2022. Photo from Sam Park Facebook page.