Ten years ago there were 65 non-white members of the legislature – 62 black members, two Hispanic members and one Asian American member. 55 MPs were women.
This year, Georgians elected six Latinos to the General Assembly, four of them for the first time. Two of them identify as Afro-Latino.
Senate Republican faction leader Jason Anavitarte, a Dallas resident who became the first Latino Republican member of the Senate two years ago, announced that he will chair a Hispanic caucus in Georgia.
It is the first time in a brief period in 2003, when the first Hispanic legislators were elected to the Georgia General Assembly, that the legislature has had a Hispanic caucus. That year, three Hispanic men were elected to the Senate, including Sam Zamarripa as a Democrat.
The diversity of the legislature is beginning to catch up with the diversity of the state. Between the 2010 and 2020 censuses in Georgia, the number of black Georgians increased by 13%, while the white population decreased by 1%. The state’s Asian American population increased by 53% and the Hispanic population increased by 32%. The peach state remained mostly white at just over 50%.
Many of the new lawmakers of color hail from racially diverse Gwinnett County, which added more than 41,000 Asian American residents and where the Hispanic population grew by more than 58,000 residents between 2010 and 2020.
Both Zamarripa and Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, welcomed the number of Latinos elected to the legislature. But they said what they call an unfair redrawing of legislative district lines over the past year has filled some districts with communities of color and diluted others.
“The reason Republicans dominate the House and Senate in the Georgia General Assembly isn’t because Republicans outnumber Democrats, it’s because of gerrymandering,” said Zamarripa, who is no longer a legislator. “No amount of gerrymandering will ever belie the magnitude of the demographic wave that is coming or is here. It can slow it down. It will certainly slow down the Democrats. But it won’t slow down other diverse candidates in the Republican Party, so diversity will continue regardless of any attempt to slow it down.”
Gonzalez said the presence of Hispanic members from both parties in both chambers offers lawmakers an opportunity to work on bipartisan issues that affect the community, such as during the voting process.
While most of the racial and religious diversity is typically found among Democratic members, there were more than 15 Republican candidates of color running for 51 vacant seats in the House of Representatives. Two suit candidates, the elected Reps. Soo Hong of Lawrenceville, who was born in South Korea, and Rey Martinez of Loganville, who is of Cuban descent, will join the Republican House of Representatives in January. Woodstock State Representative Charlice Byrd, who is of Chinese descent, is already a member of the caucus.
Jen Ryan, a spokeswoman for the House Republican caucus, said the chamber leadership has made it a priority to reach out to diverse communities to discuss the state’s issues and encourage those interested in running for office.
“Part of that was listening to and addressing the issues that were most important to families,” Ryan said. “As a result, we had the most diverse slate of candidates in GOP history and exceeded what ‘experts’ thought was possible to retain our majority.”
Hong, a lawyer, said she thinks the legislature as a whole offers a good representation of a Georgia that continues to become more ethnically diverse.
“In my experience as a Korean-American immigrant, I’ve had people who would never have had a chance to speak to anyone involved in politics, let alone a state official, (and) for them to voice their concerns and for myself.” I’m very grateful to be in this position,” she said.
Rep. Elect Ruwa Romman, a Duluth Democrat, will be the first Muslim woman to serve in Georgia House and the first Palestinian American to be elected to public office in the state. She will be the first state official to wear a hijab, a head covering worn by some Muslim women, in the Capitol.
Romman, a government adviser, said it’s important to have lawmakers from diverse backgrounds who are “uniquely better attuned to the needs of these communities.”
“Now many of these communities no longer depend on an intermediary,” she said. “Your vote is now officially at the table. You are part of the system. You are part of the process and you can make Georgia better right now – we can make Georgia better right now.”